Monday, August 13, 2007

Corruption at the Edmonton Folk Festival

It is hard to think of an institution more pure than the Edmonton Folk Festival. An institution verging at times as holier than thou. Run by volunteers, with real plates to reduce garbage, healthy ethnic foods, thousands of people co-existing peacefully for 4 days with no cops on site.

A couple of years ago I decided to go in the tarp run. This is an EFF tradition. For those readers who don't know Edmonton, the Folk Festival is held on what in Edmonton passes as a ski hill. The stage is at the bottom. People place tarps to hold their places. This is on a first come first served basis. If you come early you are in the first row, if you come later you are much higher up the hill, it seems about a mile away and several thousand feet above the stage. This is not a problem as the music is amplified and there are video screens half way up but going up and down the hill several times a day can be quite tiring.

In years past people lined up overnight to get a good spot. When the gates opened there would be a mad dash from the two entrances to grab a good spot of land. This was even more interesting as one of the gates is at the top of the hill. This culminated a few years ago in somebody running over a festival volunteer and breaking her leg. Because of this and because I think the neighbours really didn't like people sleeping overnight in their neighbour hood, the festival instituted a raffle system.

Now for the Saturday and Sunday shows, you line up at 7 am and are admitted to the compound where you are given a "colour" with a number. Each colour is a group and the number is where you line up in the group. The colours have funny names like "Red red wine" and "Mellow Yellow" (I'm not sure whether they have a "whiter shade of pale"; they should.) At about 8 am, the colours are called out randomly and if your colour is called first, your group gets to walk to the front of the stage and place your tarp (Actually you put your stuff in line in another holding pen and come back after 0900 to start the "tarp run".)

So a couple of years ago I woke up around 0630 and decided, why not go in the tarp run today? So I rode my bike down to the site. The festival asks you not to line up before 7 am so I was careful to time my arrival for 7:01. That was pretty stupid because the line-up was already about 100 metres long by that time (and like most Canadian line-ups it was growing from the centre as people let their friends join them in the line-up!). I did get into the compound however (only 300 people get in at each entrance). The volunteer at the gate looked me over and selected a coloured tag from the sheaf of tags she was carrying. The compound was an area sectioned off by a portable fence like you see around construction sites. It was cage like and about 300 people were penned up like cattle inside this area. This was compound by the fact that many people were carrying seats, and supplies for the festival. In Edmonton in August you have to have clothes for 3 seasons plus rain gear.

At 8:00 I was expecting the colours to be drawn out of a drum. However the head volunteer opened an envelope with a printed sheet of the order of colours. Hmmm I thought, I wonder how many people know which colours are going to be drawn early and are they involved in passing out the colours.

Now I soon realized that people will find a way to make any fair system unfair. You would think that for each tarp, one person would show up. It doesn't work that way. Typically 8 people would show up for each tarp and get 8 different colours, almost ensuring that at least one would be drawn early. 1 person I found out, gets 25 friends to show up and get 25 colours. (I don't have 25 friends, let alone 25 who would show up before 7 am on a weekend). This is a minor annoyance however. It does mean that less than 300 people get to participate in the tarp run because 8-25 people show up and only one of them actually gets in line.

The next year I noticed that the same two people got in the first group both days. These were not people who came in large groups. Hmmm I says, I wonder if one of their friends is a volunteer who knew what colour was going to be called first.

Anyway I didn't go in the tarp run this year. But I was talking to a friend who goes in every year who told me that yes in fact the volunteers know exactly which colours are going to be drawn first, and they give them to their friends or to people who smile at them the right way (I have trouble smiling until well after 9 am). The festival is such a sacred institution that like the Catholic Church in old times, no one wants to expose this. (Until now).

It just shows that even pure events like the Edmonton Folk Festival can be corrupted and what lengths people will go to make a fair process unfair. The other observation I have made about tarps, is that the closer to the stage they are, the less likely they are to be occupied during any of the main stage acts. I will be sleeping in and climbing the hill just like old times.