The Prince Albert Winter Festival isn’t letting the COVID-19 pandemic drag it down.
The longest-running winter festival in western Canada is having to change the way it does things due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s not taking a year off.
The festival went ahead last year, as it took place in February before COVID-19 came to Saskatchewan. This year, it’s looking to move to a mostly digital format to continue for another year.
“We felt that we wouldn’t want to lose any momentum,” said Barry Mihilewicz, festival coordinator.
He added that the festival receives grant funding from the federal heritage ministry to promote local artists and to provide them with an opportunity to perform. While the stage might take a different format this year, that opportunity remains.
“We felt it was important to still provide the venues for the Country North Show and the Rock Show and all the different things we do,” Mihilewicz said.
The festival got a first taste of what that might look like on Dec. 22, when they held a virtual Christmas show in place of the annual Tux N Toques Gala.
It was streamed by over 150 separate Facebook users, meaning it’s likely that over 200 people participated in the event.
‘We threw it together in a very short period of time but it turned out well,” Mihilewicz said.
“We were extremely careful to make sure we weren’t putting anybody in jeopardy when it came to transmission of COVID-19 and we were very successful with that.”
Participants were distanced and wore masks. Singers removed masks to perform but were at least 30 feet away from anyone else while they sang.
“It was a successful show too,” Mihilewicz said. “We established the format”
The event would typically attract about 150 people in person, meaning the virtual event had an even broader appeal. The price of admission was just a voluntary donation to the food bank.
The Christmas show was emceed by this year’s honorary festival co-chairs, Lawrence Joseph and Don Mitchell.
“Both of those gentlemen have been the face of the winter festival for a long time,” explained festival president Bev Erickson.
“They both gave up countless hours in volunteering to help all the shows be a success.”
Joseph, she said, was in the first Country North show, while Don Mitchell gave up his free time when he worked at CKBI to go on-site and do live broadcasts from various events. He also used his show as a platform to promote the different winter festival events.
“Both of these men have been a great face for Prince Albert throughout the years and we felt their contribution to the Winter Festival family as extraordinary,” Erickson said.
“We thought we’d put them together because they hosted shows together as well,”
Looking forward, while the usual slate of shows will move online this year, festival organizers are hoping to have some of their long-running outdoor events continue in one form or another.
The snow sculptures have been given a green light, but other events are still in the planning stage and depend strongly on what COVID-19 restrictions are in place when the festival is set to go ahead.
“We’re going to try to do the best we can,” Erickson said.
“We’re going to do our online shows for no charge, just a donation to the food bank if possible. Right now we’re planning for a park-and-watch fireworks show nad possibly a drive-thru fish fry.”
The family sliding day at Little Red River Park will also likely go ahead, as it takes place outside and physical distancing is possible. The festival is looking at COVID-safe ways to ensure dogsled races go ahead, and are also examining ways to continue with the King Trapper competition.
Other contests will move online. The jigging contest will see contestants send in videos they make themselves, while the festival is exploring a digital version of the “funniest guy with a day job” stand-up comedy contest.
The winter festival buttons will still go on sale at select local businesses, and a limited number of Winter Festival reusable masks will be sold. The festival is also launching online 50-50 and raffle draws to help fund the events. More information on those draws is available at pawinterfestival.com or on Facebook.
Confirmed digital shows include the Rock Show on Feb. 6, the Youth Extravaganza on Feb. 7, Voices of the North on Feb. 13 and the Fiddle Show on Feb. 14 The final week of the festival will see OCutnry North streamed on Feb. 18, the 50th Aniversary Country North Reunion show on Feb. 20 and the Gospel Show on Feb. 21. The Fiddle Show and Gospel Show will be live from the E.A. Rawlinson Centre, while the Youth Extravaganza will be pre-recorded throughout January ahead of its festival premiere.
A small live audience may be possible for some of those shows, but that will depend on COVID restrictions at the time.
Erickson said it was important to keep the winter festival spirit going to provide some light in a difficult winter.
“We are trying to keep in mind the people that are going to be home, looking for something to do in the long winter months, and we want to be able to provide some outlet for the people of Prince Albert and area,” she said.
“With all the restrictions and all of the sadness going around — people couldn’t spend Christmas with their families — we thought it would be nice to still keep the winter festival alive.”
Moving things to a digital platform may have been done out of necessity, but it has its perks, too, Mihilewicz said.
The festival moving online means shows can reach a bigger audience than they would normally.
“We see an opportunity there,” he said.
“(We can) show people that maybe there is a reason to come to Prince Albert for the Winter festival in 2022.”