On the Canadian National Exhibition: Looking Back and Looking Ahead

This is the fifth and final piece in a series of reports from the 2012 Canadian National Exhibition.

In my first report from this year’s CNE, I quoted Vincent Massey’s opinion from 1952 that the CNE tells the story of Canadian achievement more graphically than any book, and I expressed some puzzlement about what kind of story the CNE is telling today. After exploring the fair end to end, I can’t say I’m any less puzzled. The opening ceremony’s War of 1812 nationalism still seems wildly out of place and weirdly tacked on to an event that is otherwise not trying to tell any kind of story or make much of a statement.

The heart of the problem is that the Canadian National Exhibition is not really an exhibition anymore. Most people go for the rides and the food, the concerts, the air show, maybe the discount shopping, but the exhibits are hardly a big draw. The CNE Archives always puts on a smart and popular exhibit about the history of the fair (this year the theme was the CNE’s military tradition), but it’s the exception that proves the rule, and its high quality only makes you conscious of how few other exhibits there are to see. A lot of the best exhibition buildings on the grounds—the Automotive Building at the east end, most of the beautiful old buildings at the west end—aren’t even used by the CNE because they’ve been renovated and leased out for private uses.

This is not entirely the CNE’s fault, of course. Exhibitions everywhere have shrunk, and they no longer perform the world-revealing role they once did. Nevertheless, it seems like the CNE is missing out on a lot of opportunities. The museum renovations and renewals of the past few years have engaged and excited Torontonians, and the rather astonishing success of Nuit Blanche proves that there can be a mass audience for cultural events that combine the fun and the serious. It has to make you wonder whether the CNE couldn’t be doing more to reclaim its status as a major cultural event.

In part, the CNE suffers from Toronto’s persistent difficulty with appreciating its own history. By contrast, New York’s Coney Island, a site that shares some similarities with the CNE, has benefited from the efforts of a non-profit organization called Coney Island USA that is devoted to keeping carnival cultural traditions alive. Among other things, they have a fun little museum of Coney Island history, a sideshow, and the crazy Mermaid Parade. They also have a fundraising gift shop that sells books, DVDs, and Coney Island–themed merchandise. With a little bit of imagination, the CNE could be doing similar things with its own traditions. (Imagine, for example, a museum of midway and carnival history in one of those old buildings at the eastern end of the grounds.)

In any event, there could soon be big changes happening at the CNE, one way or another. After more than 130 years of being financially and organizationally bound up with the City of Toronto, next year the CNE will be cut loose to become an independent entity that will sink or swim on its own. At the same time, Exhibition Place is changing in ways that will certainly have an effect on the CNE: construction is about to start on a high-rise hotel; there are plans on the books for an expansion of the trade centre complex; and a casino is still possible. And of course there’s Ontario Place next door, which is about to undergo some sort of wholesale transformation. Amid all this change, let’s hope some thought is given to the CNE’s legacy as an exhibition, and to creative ways that that legacy could be preserved and reinvigorated.

One response to “On the Canadian National Exhibition: Looking Back and Looking Ahead”

  1. Really enjoyed this series . . . but be careful or you are soon going to end up as unpaid committee member tasked to save the CNE from itself.