Photos by Michael Kolberg
Most Torontonians don’t need to be told that The Ex starts today. It’s one of the few comforting constants in our rapidly changing city. Plus, every news outlet in town has reminded you already. The Ex is so ubiquitous, in fact, that if you were to be asked, you might have trouble putting into words what exactly the CNE was without using the word Exhibition: The Ex is just The Ex. But after a Calgarian friend admitted to not knowing what it was and overhearing a terrible barista tell a curious Australian that The Ex was “a festival” that happens at the “Exhibition Centre,” I became overwhelmed with the need to set to set the record straight.
The Canadian National Exhibition is a bonanza of excess. For two weeks, Exhibition Place is transformed from a series of parking lots into a series of opportunities to spend money on fleeting gratification. This is not a criticism. In a world where everyone from giant tech companies to dog food vendors are trying to sell you on phoney promises of authentic human emotion, the simplicity of the CNE’s offer of a no strings attached cash-for-fun transaction is refreshing.
At a preview of the fair on Wednesday, member of the press were treated to a selection of note-worthy attractions: street performers, a stage-fighting dance crew from France, old school acrobatics from The Flying Wallendas, the Epic Maple Bacon “Cronut” Inspired Burger With 100% Canadian All Beef Patty And Home Made Maple Bacon Jam That Is Very Epic And Contains Bacon, and a ten-storey zip line that this reporter so bravely rode in the name of journalism. We were reminded to remind you about the Air Show and SuperDogs and the International Sand Sculpting Competition and all the stuff that’s always there. Celebrity chefs like Mark McEwan and Chuck Hughes will be making appearances. The Bandshell will host a mix of grandma’s old favourites like The Beach Boys and Frankie Avalon, legit relevant musicians The New Pornographers, and CityTV New Year’s Bash-style CanCon acts like Danny Fernandes, Massari, Big Wreck and Theory of a Deadman.
There is a Cat Show.
But none of those things are the reason you will go to The Ex. Or rather, inversely, none of those things will keep you from going. You’re going to go to the CNE because your girlfriend has never been, or your sister’s kids have a week-long gap between camp ending and school starting, or you just like the way the sun, junk food and motion sickness blend into the most comforting headache. It’s a chance to drop all pretensions and take your fill of non-glamourous merriment one Tiny Tom’s donut-sized portion at a time. And then maybe just one more. Plus, the Valencia-tinted midway rides will really spice up your Instagram feed.
But, however tempting, it’s hard to look at The Ex without noticing the imperfect context. Just trying to get to Exhibition Place highlights how messed up our city’s transportation network is right now, and the patchwork of trailer-drawn midway games and temporary fencing reminds you how criminally under-used the grounds are 10 months out of the year. An off-hand remark from CNE President Brian Ashton caught my attention. As he introduced the PC Financial Zip Line, thanking the grocery store-based credit card company for their support over the years, he mentioned how their partnership was a great example of how the CNE continues to “brand the grounds.” While corporate sponsorship is a necessary evil vital to the fair’s financial success, if there is a threat to the cultural value of The Ex, this is it. We haven’t yet crossed the threshold into an empty “branded experiential opportunity,” but it’s a line we’ll continue to watch in the coming years.
Over the next two weeks we’ll be reporting on the best, the worst, the most unexpected and the predictably amazing things we can find at the Ex, with the hopes of identifying what could be done better and what should never change. We’re going to call it something clever like “The Ex Files” or “Texts From The Ex” and try and wrap the whole thing up with some kind of think piece that makes us feel good about what we’ve got, but also reminds us that we can always improve.
But, I mean, you’re also allowed to just go to The Ex and have a lot of fun. That’s totally cool with me.