By David Sali
Elaina Martin could probably offer thousands of anecdotes about Westfest, but one that really sticks in her mind was the time Cowboy Junkies frontwoman Margo Timmons crashed a backyard barbecue.
It was 2005, and Westfest was in just its second year as a “grassroots little music festival” staged in the parking lot of a Mac’s Milk on Richmond Road.
“We were literally in people’s backyards using their space,” recalled Martin, the event’s founder and producer for all 16 years of its existence.
The Cowboy Junkies were the headliner, and after their show the band’s lead singer simply strolled over to the house behind the stage 20 feet away, where she happily chatted with the locals who had gathered in a driveway to hear the performance.
“They had Margo Timmons from Cowboy Junkies show up at their family barbecue,” Martin said with a chuckle. “(Westfest) has been solidly embedded in the community in so many ways that I can’t even express.”
After “16 years of amazing memories,” Martin announced in late July that Westfest has staged its final performance.
She said the event, which has always been free to attend, simply could no longer raise the sponsorship dollars required to keep it afloat.
“Fifteen years ago, it was a lot easier to get business and sponsors to pay for events than it is today,” Martin said. “It’s nearly impossible now. We just can’t do this anymore because it’s just not sustainable. We never want to charge (admission) for the festival. It’s just not Westfest.”
The festival has never received funding from the province, so it was not affected by recent cuts to the Celebrate Ontario grant program, she noted. But she said the cuts are just one more sign of a downward trend in overall giving to charitable events.
“That’s just a reflection of the bigger picture, which is there’s no money left anymore,” Martin said.
In more than a decade in Westboro, the festival’s attendance grew from about 1,000 in its first year in 2004 to a peak of 100,000 during its last four years on Richmond Road, where it stretched for 14 blocks.
During that time, its budget also expanded exponentially, from $30,000 to more than $1 million — virtually all of it from sponsors. At one point, the festival had seven full-time employees.
But over the years, some big-name partners, including Scotiabank and Subaru, gradually cut back their contributions or pulled out entirely. In 2015, the Westboro Village BIA cancelled its contract as the event’s title sponsor, a deal that would have paid $125,000 a year.
“We couldn’t really control those things,” Martin said.
The following year, Westfest relocated to Laroche Park in Hintonburg, but had to vacate the site just two years later when the city announced plans to refurbish the park. Martin said having to move again cost the festival thousands of dollars and made it hard to re-establish its footing.
Westfest ended up at Tom Brown Arena, where it has drawn about 5,000 people each of the last two years and operated on a budget of about $150,000.
“That certainly plays a huge role in why our finances have been so challenging in the last couple of years,” Martin said, adding Westfest was staged entirely by volunteers in its last few years. “Although we love Tom Brown Arena, the damage was already done. I feel really terrible for the residents of Mechanicsville and the people who utilize and love Laroche Park because it could have really been something special there.”
Still, she said she’s not sad to see Westfest’s run come to a close.
“All good things must come to an end,” Martin said. “We’ve had 16, and I mean it when I say, glorious years. They have been glorious, even through the challenges and the ups and downs.”
Over the years, Westfest became known for giving unknown artists from a variety of racial and ethnic groups their first exposure to a wide audience. In 2008, as part of its celebration of indigenous women in music, legendary singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie played to a crowd of 5,000 spectators.
“Maybe half of them were indigenous people, so we knew we’d done what we’d set out to do, which was create a space for diversity and to shine a spotlight on it,” Martin said.
“It was the first event that really shone an honest light on diverse artists in our city. The other festivals are starting to jump on board, and that’s kind of the legacy that I think Westfest will leave.”
Martin’s friend Erin Benjamin, the head of the Canadian Live Music Association, praised the festival for its willingness to give emerging artists a chance.
“When (Martin) started to focus on inclusivity, I think it became far more than a community festival,” she said. “I think it became a necessary festival. I think it became the festival that other festivals looked to for best practices.
“She really set the bar locally and was putting artists on stage long ago that you wouldn’t have seen anywhere else.”
Benjamin said the festival’s demise leaves her with mixed emotions.
“I think it’s sad that Westfest’s time has come, but I also fully understand it,” she said. “I think a lot of people refuse to let events or festivals die just based on a sense of tradition, and I don’t think that’s always the right choice, because some things have a lifespan. And that’s OK. I think Elaina’s leaving on a really high note.”
Martin said she’s already got some other irons in the fire but isn’t ready to publicly discuss her future plans just yet.
“I think people can expect to see a lot more of what they’ve seen me do in the last 16 years but on a more national stage–certainly including Ottawa because that’s my home, but my whole life and my career has been dedicated to and will continue to be dedicated to providing opportunities, platforms and exposure for racialized and marginalized artists. So that’s what I plan to do, but on more of a national stage. I’m really excited.”