Saving the CNE

by Markus O’Brien Fehr, Chief of Staff

In 2019, I got back to the CNE for the first time in several years. Other than the miss-step of trying a pickle flavoured lemonade (which was apparently “the thing” that summer) it brought back many great memories of being flung around on midway rides, battling carnival games, or trying some new food concoction that you’d just never find anywhere else. I certainly didn’t expect that this was going to be my last trip to the CNE – but may be the reality without government intervention.

Started as the Toronto Industrial Exhibition in 1879, the CNE has grown into one of the 10 largest fairs in North America. It’s a long standing summer tradition marking the end of the season. Welcoming over 1.5 million visitors each summer, the CNE generates an economic impact of $93 million for the GTA each year, offering 5,000 jobs – many to youth as a first employment opportunity – and over 1,000 opportunities for performers and entertainers.

Due to COVID-19 case counts that still remain dangerously high, the City has been forced to suspend all large events through Labour Day, wiping out many summer events for a second straight year.  This decision will impact many traditions from the Caribbean Carnival to more local events like Taste of Danforth or the Beaches Jazz Fest. But the operating impact on the CNE is so significant, it may not be able to bounce back after a second year of closure.

The not-for-profit Canadian National Exhibition Association that oversees the event took a $6 million loss in 2020, and cannot afford to do so again.  They currently estimate that $11 million is required to put the CNE back on solid financial footing, or they risk bankruptcy.

The City of Toronto worked in partnership with the CNE to address some of these shortfalls in 2020, and has committed to doing so again in 2021.  But as the City continues to grapple with its own financial gaps after 15 months of pandemic activity, the resources it has available to help are also very limited.

Led by local Councillor Mike Layton, the City has called on both the Provincial and Federal governments to step in and help cover the shortfall. A “Save the CNE” petition has been started, which has already received over 10,000 signatures of support.

But saving the CNE shouldn’t just be a local community issue.  Its history and tradition are important to many Torontonians, as well as others across the region.  It’s one I hope that my children will also get to experience, like my parents and grandparents – perhaps with some fatherly advice to skip the pickle flavoured lemonade.