Heritage Festival to be a backyard BBQ for 340,000

Jack Little has a lot on his plate right about now. He’s getting ready to host a party, which requires food and drink, some music and a whole lot of dancing.

This is no backyard BBQ. Little is the executive director of the much-loved Edmonton institution, the Servus Heritage Festival. If the weather holds, he’s expecting around 340,000 guests to stop down the grass at Hawrelak Park over the long weekend.

“Basically, it’s huge,” says Little. “The park is at capacity.”

Little describes the festival as the “largest celebration of multiculturalism in the world in one physical location.”  The numbers seem to back up that claim. There are 62 pavilions, representing 84 countries (Scandinavia has one pavilion, but five countries). There will be 660 “opportunities to eat” as Little puts it, and 300 chances to take in special ethnic entertainment.

Little is proud of the green nature of the event. Every knife, fork, spoon, cup and plate is biodegradable, and almost 84 per cent of the garbage is compostable. About 100,000 people will utilize ETS for the single biggest Park & Ride event of the year. There are two huge, supervised bike compounds for people who want to leave an even smaller footprint.

It takes the efforts of 6,000 volunteers to do everything that is needed to put on the show. As an example of the kind of effort needed, Little points to the popular Ukrainian pavilion. In a Ukrainian parish beginning in January, a half-dozen or more women have met every Tuesday to make thousands upon thousands of pyrogies needed so festival goers can stuff their faces with the doughy little creations.

Food is, of course, the primary reason to attend the festival. Where else are you going to find tzebhi zigni with injera, or a nice keye siga wat, or a bit of khubiz a’arong? And seriously, you just can’t walk into Burger King and order mosi-oa-tunya-masmakada, can you?

Little has been the executive director of the Edmonton Heritage Festival Association for eight years. When he took over, the festival was “chaos,” he says. Twenty groups had abandoned the festival, and it was technically bankrupt. Little got the 20 splinter groups to come back, and using his salesman skills, signed up a number of major sponsors. The whole thing is non-profit, and is operated by just two people year round.

If you’re going, here’s a tip from the top: Saturday, strangely enough, is the quietest day. And here’s another tip: food tickets are available in advance at Save-On Food locations and Tix on the Square, but only in full sheets of 30 for $25. Individual tickets at the festival site are $1 each, 6 tix for $5, etc. You can walk or ride or take the bus, but don’t even think about driving, as there is no parking on site. But do think about bringing a donation of food or cash for the Edmonton Food Bank. It’s their biggest event of the year.

Even if you don’t want to spend a nickel, that’s OK too. You can at least leave with a warm glow of intercultural goodwill.

“We feel strongly that if we can all just get along, and make this one of the biggest festivals in the world,” Little says. “Think of what could happen if we could multiply this by 10 or 100 or 1,000?”

That’s a lot of pyrogies.