North Country Fair began as a dream to celebrate the Summer Solstice: an age-old concept of gathering for the longest day of the year. As the aspiring back-to-the-landers and co-founders of North Country Fair came to appreciate, the sun played an important role in homesteading life in Northern Alberta in the 70s. The Summer Solstice meant new growth, greater warmth, more daylight hours. What better time to make music, sing, dance and celebrate in what was often the harsh reality of surviving the elements?
The first North Country Fair was in 1979, co-sponsored by the Joussard Sports Association. Close to 1,500 people attended, making it the largest outdoor celebration in Joussard’s history.
Shortly after, Lesser Slave Lake North Country Community Association was formed and incorporated under the Alberta Societies Act. Its objects were not only to continue to arrange musical events like North Country Fair, but also to operate a K-12 school; to demonstrate alternate energy systems; arrange lectures and workshops; and to promote organic gardening, forest awareness and conservation, and responsible, sustainable agriculture. Clearly, the extent and scope of the Society’s mandate required dedicated, committed families and allowed for fostering volunteer involvement.
The early gatherings continued in venues along Lesser Slave Lake, in the hamlets of Joussard and Faust, until 1983—the year North Country Fair goers became resigned to and embraced the fact that rain might very well be a part of the celebration.
An excerpt from the Lakeside Pioneer history book published in 1986 states: “The 1983 North Country Fair will be remembered by many as ‘Mud City’ on Joussard Point. A fourteen-hour downpour Saturday night left close to 800 people stranded on a point of sand, separated from the road by 100 yards of Joussard gumbo.
“Seven local farmers spent eight hours pulling vehicles through the mud and many left with an unforgettable experience of country living.”
Ultimately, better camping facilities were needed in case of such weather, but it was that level of community support that fuelled the coming years. From 1984-1989, North Country Fair was held at Spruce Point Park, further east on the lake by the village of Kinuso. Then, from 1990 to 2004, it was held in Joussard’s Mission Park with adjoining Lakeshore Campground and Chancelet Park for camping. At this time, North Country School was located nearby: solar-powered, wood-heated, with up to 35 K-12 and home-schooled students receiving an individualized curriculum with emphasis on music and the arts. Part of the school curriculum was preparing music and drama for North Country Fair. Many of these 15 Fairs opened with school presentations.
The level of volunteer commitment during these years was remarkable, both from school families and from a growing “Fair Family” from near and far that were dedicated to North Country endeavors. It didn’t seem to matter where the Fair was held or whether it was rain or shine, more and more families gathered each year to greet old friends, experience a wide genre of music from around the world and celebrate the Solstice. North Country Fair was becoming generational for those attending and for volunteers and organizers. With this growth, the set up and take down of infrastructure required for the event in a rented facility was becoming increasingly difficult; also the challenge of providing adequate camping space. It was decided to move to a permanent home in the Driftpile Valley in 2005.
Part of the magic of North Country Fair has always been that the sun barely sets, just dips below the horizon of what for many years was the waters of Lesser Slave Lake and now the forest and river of Driftpile Valley. Now imagine musicians from all walks of life who not only grace the stages, but participate in workshops and play around campfires till the wee hours of the morn. Add an abundance of colour, art, sculpture, crafting, health and wellness workshops, children’s activities, reverence for Earth, and you have another part of the magic that has kept the spirit of North Country Fair alive.
Since 2005, infrastructure that was once portable has become more permanent. In addition to the main stage area, three other stages have been created to host various presentations. The Reed Playground, a children’s wonderland of climbing, swinging, sliding and crafts, has its own stage for family music and fun. Two other stages can be found nestled in wooded areas. Shelters have been built for picnicking. An electrical grid, with solar panel supplementation has been established.
With the help of a municipal grant, roads were made to campground areas by the Driftpile River, which allows swimming, canoeing, tubing and water play.
Hosting over 5,000 people in one place for four or five days is not necessarily an easy feat. It takes incredible effort and organization to ensure basic needs are taken care of and a good time is had by all. North Country Fair relies on over 600 volunteers to contract and schedule artists, arrange travel and accommodation, book food booths and craft vendors, set up and decorate venues, schlep various-sized instruments to four different venues at scheduled times, prepare campground areas, arrange for porta-potties, garbage clean-up and recycling, direct traffic and provide safety and security. The fully-equipped outdoor industrial kitchen is a bustling beehive of activity during the event feeding over 500 people; performers, guests, organizers and their families.
The created infrastructure and organization of North Country Fair has all been accomplished as a result of the solid volunteer base who live in the Lesser Slave Lake area and from places like Edmonton, Grande Prairie, Peace River and beyond, committed to countless hours, sometimes year-round effort of meetings and planning to actualize North Country objectives.
North Country Fair is now preparing for its 40th year; continuing to celebrate the longest day and commemorate the spirit of community and sharing that has woven its way into the fabric of the event. Multi generations will once again experience the magic that is North Country Fair, one of the best-loved music events in Alberta and what for many is a feeling of coming home to celebrate the Summer Solstice, as decades ago imagined.