Dave Hamer, president of the North and South Saanich Agricultural Society, says COVID-19 forced organizers to revise the Saanich Fair, traditionally scheduled for the Labour Day weekend. (Wolfgang Depner/News Staff)

COVID-19 scales back Saanich Fair

“We don’t want to say that we are cancelling the fair. We are not having a traditional fair.”

Clara Knight cannot remember a time when she did not attend the Saanich Fair.

The 78-year-old remembers attending the fair as a young child and fondly recalls the many social activities around the fair that she shared with other farmers’ children while growing up in Central Saanich, such as judging animals, square-dancing, and sampling traditional fair favourites, such as hot dogs and hamburgers.

“I have a big appetite,” she said with a big chuckle over the phone.

Over the years, she has remained loyal to the fair as a visitor and participant and helped to shape the event in countless ways.

Throughout Knight’s later adult life she was involved with the North and South Saanich Agricultural Society, the organization staging the fair over the Labour Day Weekend.

“So it holds a dear, dear, dear spot in my heart,” she said.

RELATED: VIDEO: Clara Knight has attended Saanich Fair since 1947

That spot suffered a blow Tuesday when Dave Hamer, Knight’s successor as president of the society, announced that the fair won’t be held in its traditional manner because of the COVID-19 pandemic for the first time in 152 years.

“We don’t want to say that we are cancelling the fair,” he said. “We are not having a traditional fair.”

Instead of hosting anywhere north of 45,000 people over the three days, organizers will instead use social media to host educational and entertaining activities online, while also staging some socially-distanced safe activities at the Saanich Fairground including a farmers’ market.

Practically, it means that thousands of residents throughout the Saanich Peninsula specifically and Greater Victoria generally won’t be able to do the very things that attracted Knight and countless others to the fair since a young age — socialize and have fun with others, while appreciating agriculture in all its diversity.

“It’s emotional, it’s hard,” said Hamer, when asked about the emotional impact of changing an event that has historically meant so much for entire generations. Hamer, by his own account, has attended every fair save one since 1970.

The revisions are a result of the provincial regulations against large scale gatherings. Hamer said the health and wellness of the community is foremost. Knight makes a comparable point.

As much as she regrets the revisions to the event and their impact on farmers and other affected groups, Knight has also worked as a registered nurse.

“So I respect the situation that we are in, and community safety is of prime importance,” she said. “I know we can’t hold a traditional fair because of the year.”

Knight is familiar when it comes to dealing with viruses by way of her profession, but also personal biography. “As a child, one of my girlfriends was hit hard with polio,” she said. “So that made a big impression on me.”

With the new format, the society stands to lose its main historical source of revenue to operate Saanich Fairground and employ six staff.

“We have some contingency money,” he said. “We are able to operate still, but we need to have money that money coming in. We have a lot of bills.”

The mandate of the society is to “advance the general interest of agriculture and to hold a Fall Agricultural Exhibition,” a mandate that has already suffered thanks to COVID-19.

Various provincial regulations have prevented the society from renting out the grounds to agricultural and non-agricultural users for much of the spring and while the society will start renting out the fairground to smaller groups, the revisions to the fair will hurt the visibility of agriculture in the region.

This said, organizers are trying to create alternatives to retain the educational agenda of the fair and both Hamer and Knight predict events like Saanich Fair has a future in the post-pandemic period.

“We are planning on having a normal fair next year,” said Hamer.

“I believe that medically, and economically and every other way, we will overcome,” said Knight. “I see us hopefully being back to our traditional fair in September a year from now.”

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