I didn’t grow up in Toronto so I don’t have any childhood memories of The Ex. My Dad never put me on the Double Looper; my Mom never took me to the horse shows. I come from Southwestern Ontario, so my end of summer ritual was the Ridgetown Fair and it was similar to The Ex (as I know it now) in many respects. There were horses and agricultural displays, there was a midway and there was the occasional ridiculous stunt. (My favourite were the “Hell Drivers”, a travelling demolition derby team.) It was all quaint and small and the rides were the same year after year; but it made sense to me. Here you have a local fair, sponsored by local people, to show off the local agricultural talent. One would imagine that in today’s era of organic this and free range that, an event that put on a huge, old-fashioned kind of Fair could do pretty well. And it probably could. But that’s not what happened to the Ridgetown Fair. They kept bringing in the same rides, the same beat-up Hell Drivers and the same 4-H shows and after 140 years, the Ridgetown Fair closed its gates for good.
The Canadian National Exhibition has a similarly proud past and much like the fair of my youth, its present bares little to no resemblance. That being said, I’ve lived in Toronto for about 13 years now and I visit the Ex every August. There’s some fun to be had in the crappy rides, sub-par corn dogs, the increasingly chain ridden Food Building and the inevitable wash-out 80’s band playing in the Bandshell. But I’m compelled to admit that I never leave the Ex feeling satisfied. And I can’t believe it’s just me feeling that way. I don’t know if it’s the light wallet, the developing indigestion or the slight ringing in my ears, but even as a much younger man the whole experience seemed a bit hollow. Perhaps it’s the mediocrity of the whole thing that leaves me wanting.
One needn’t look very closely to see that the organizers of the Ex aren’t trying very hard. In fact, all one needs do is look in the Better Living Centre to see that the modern Exhibition’s idea of a better life is one involving the following: gambling, drinking, crappy t-shirts, crappy bikinis and other assorted “As Seen on TV” bullshit. The Better Living Centre was constructed to show off the ways in which Canadians were making the home a better place to live. In the 1950’s and 60’s “Better Living” might have meant instant coffee or the GE electric kettle. But there was once the promise of a bright future now there’s just a room; a space in which to put things, without thought or care. It’s a common theme at the Ex, an event that seems less planned out than strewn around. The “better living” isn’t entirely gone. Some of it has moved into the Direct Energy Centre, but the purpose of the whole thing has changed. It’s about selling items, not bragging about them. And forgive me, but that’s not an exhibition. It’s a mall and it’s fitting that this poor showing has been moved into a building that at best looks like one.
The story is the same in all the other buildings; middle of the road offerings that exist only to sell. And that’s fine, but it’s not an Exhibition. Worse is the Food Building. A pathetic, smelly, useless exercise in almost everything that’s wrong with food—greasy, cheap and way too easy. Not a bad place to get a gyro, but it’s too cramped and the offerings aren’t so much chosen as they are inherited. And this is a key point. Every vendor that comes to the CNE has an opportunity to make a great deal of money. I understand why the spots in the Food Building are coveted. I get why every tchotchke dealer in the GTA wants a spot in the Queen Elizabeth building and I sympathize with them. Some may be worthy of exhibition, but holy shit…do we really need another booth selling framed NASCAR pictures, used CDs and (yes…I’ll say it again) crappy t-shirts? At best we need one of each.
I can’t think of a city that spends more time worrying about its lack of international status and its failure to achieve a so-called “world class event” than Toronto. And while our clueless leaders are off taxing plastic bags, fucking around with the unions or trying to score any event with the words “World” or “Games” in the name, the CNE is ignored. It’s like the fat kid on the basketball court shouting “I’m open! I’m open!” He might be wicked from downtown, a 3-point god, but you’ll never know ’cause you spend all your time hoping an older kid will want to play on your team. We pretend to celebrate the CNE, but it’s all habit. We say we want a World’s Fair and just like Torontonians, we can only look outwards to find one when the Ex could give us one every year. But how could the city turn an 18-day celebration of the middle into their long-sought “world-class event”?
First, I’ll admit that some things about the Ex work, even if they must also change. This includes the midway. The CNE must have a midway, but it needs to be slightly smaller, much safer and offer a better value. And at a midway value means more rides and fewer games. The games are rigged, we all know this and because we know this we can feel good cutting down on a few. But the CNE must have a midway. It’s a bit of tradition that’s worth keeping if it too can modernize. The CNE should also retain all the parades and special days; all of which are tremendous contributors of community to the event. The agriculture should stay, but with conditions I’ll address later. And finally, the Air Show can and should be retained. What would be really great though is if it included a static display at the Island Airport. I can dream.
Second, we’ll also need to accept that some things may have to go in order to construct a fair in which we can take some pride. This is going to mean a big hit for the purveyors of crap upon whom I’ve heaped so much scorn. Well, so be it. Try to imagine the CNE as your home and the international visitors we want to attract as your guests, now eliminate everything from the CNE (vendors or otherwise) that you’d be embarrassed to show Cousin Abigail from Liverpool. Parts of the Ex come off like the State Fair of the Apocalypse they’re so shoddily presented and we shouldn’t be so timid about showing our embarrassment. Also on the scrap heap should be the Casino, unless it’s a completely Canadian themed casino…then it can stay. Just in another building.
Thirdly, we have to attract large businesses and all levels government back to the fair in a much more significant way. We have to make it a place where businesspeople from every industry in Canada can come and show how they’re making the world a better place. Better yet, how Canada is making the world a better place. OR even better, how Canadians are making the world a better place. Let’s put green automobiles back in the automotive building. Let’s put eco-friendly building demonstrations into the Better Living Centre and for damn sure let’s make sure that every bit of agriculture we show off is sustainable. Let’s fill the Queen Elizabeth building with the individuals from all across Canada that are making a difference. And finally, let’s use the goddamn Food Building to show off the best of Canadian food, specifically from our great city. People can go to the mall for 90% of the shit sold in the Food Building…we can do so much better. This year, I’d put up an entire booth dedicated to seal meat. Oh, and don’t worry…there will be plenty of room for Tiny Tom’s.
My complaints with the CNE have so much to do with our failure as Torontonians to fully grasp what we have. We have all the groundwork for a groundbreaking international event. We can even invite other countries to participate. Who’d want to miss a large, yearly eco-innovation fair? All we have to do is stop looking to the rest of the world to hand us a solution to our problems. The solutions we create for ourselves with our own resources will pay dividends long after a World’s Fair or Olympics has left town. But building it at home isn’t enough. We have to build it well and we have to expect better of ourselves and the events we create to represent us. It’s hard to believe the Ex can still exist in a city that creates events like Luminato. But alas, tradition can be powerful. Tradition allows the Ex to endure even though it isn’t really an Ex at all. In that way, the CNE stopped being the CNE a long time ago. It’s fitting that the Canadian National Exhibition is generally just called “The Ex”; an abbreviated name for an abbreviated opportunity.