Impressions of the Edmonton Heritage Festival

Impressions… oh, how I’ve missed this series. There was so much more I wanted to do with it, back before the pandemic forced all live events to cancel. Now, with the return of some events (albeit in a limited capacity), I can at last make a new entry, with the early August cultural showcase that is the Edmonton Heritage Festival.

Set in the wide-open William Hawrelak Park, it’s actually in a better position than most other events when it comes to implementing social distancing measures. Sadly, the down-scaling meant fewer places could be there (some of the more notable absences being Japan, Scandinavia, Greece, Germany, and France), but there was still a fairly good spread, all things considered.

So, to those unfamiliar with this event, what’s the fuss all about? Well, you come to this event for two things: the food, and the culture. First, let’s talk about the latter. Throughout the park are pavilions run by folks of varying cultures and countries. Some of them simply sell food. Others create information displays with historical facts, and others still sell hand-crafted goods in bazaar-style tents. Some will even showcase their traditions through song, dance, and music.

This is what makes Heritage Fest stand out from other food events in Edmonton: it’s not just a chance to try unfamiliar foods. It’s a chance to learn about other ways of life, other means of expression. It’s a celebration of Canada’s diversity. Don’t just stick to what you know, be daring! Open your mind to new possibilities, try something different!

A scheduled dance performance by the Polish Folklore Ensemble.

This, of course, leads into the other big draw: the food. While you’re wandering the park and taking in all these fresh sights, you’ll naturally end up hungry. Every pavilion sells food items related to their heritage… though this year, to minimize physical contact, they stopped using the old system, where you’d get one food ticket per dollar. Instead, you paid the pavilion directly, using credit or debit. I get why they did it, but it felt less special doing it this way, so I hope this was only a temporary change.

From Bangladesh: Vegetable pakoras and a mango smoothie. A bit spicy, but they taste better than they look, and the smoothie compliments it well.
From Ecuador and El Salvador: A piece of Chocoflan impossible cake and Cola Champagne. I liked the cake, but the drink is a bit too sweet even for my tastes.
From Vietnam: Vermicelli noodles and beef, with a plain salad and spring rolls on the side. A nice mix of flavors, though it’s nothing ground-breaking.

In terms of lay-out, I like the festival’s free-style atmosphere. You can walk around and explore the pavilions at your own pace (though the site’s entry points were more tightly controlled this year). Aside from the cultural pavilions, there are other groups to check out as well. There were spokespeople from the University of Alberta, service providers holding free contests, and I believe there was a hot air balloon back in 2019. The Edmonton police have a pavilion as well, and they brought with them donuts, some cruisers, and even a helicopter! So yeah, seeing one of those up-close was pretty neat.

As for their website lay-out? Admittedly, I’m not a fan. I get what they were going for, with the whole diversity thing and all that… but this re-design just isn’t doing it for me. It feels too incohesive; the colors clash, the rectangles are too disruptive, the fonts too numerous.

The online menu, in stark contrast, is minimalistic. I’m no graphic designer, but a menu shouldn’t just be a wall of text. If you aren’t gonna include images or graphics, at least structure it so that the information isn’t all clumped together on the same line.

It’s not just the formatting that’s off, either. The line-breakers are inconsistent. The numbering is off with the Jamaica and Philippines pavilions. Prices are missing from the Hong Kong and Police pavilions. I get that it’s a turbulent time right now, but c’mon, I know you can do better than this.

The menu on mobile.

Okay, that’s enough ranting. The online aspect is almost entirely optional, so it’s not really a big deal.

What is important to the outdoor element. You’ll want bug spray, first of all, to keep the bugs away. Also, sunscreen. There is shade, yes, but not a lot of it. Do not forget the sunscreen. I made that mistake once before… it wasn’t fun. Consider an umbrella or poncho as well, just in case. Also, you’ll be walking on grass, so choose your shoes wisely.

Finally, let’s quickly go over about the volunteer experience. In exchange for 4 hours per shift, I got a nifty shirt, water bottle, and free passage on public transit.

Oh, and also a free meal. Last time, it was just a pre-set meal at the volunteer HQ. This year, however, they introduced meal tokens to redeem at a pavilion of our choice. I really liked this change, and I hope they’ll consider keeping them around.

Me when ordering unfamiliar food.

My overall thoughts? It’s a mixed bag, but that’s what makes it fun. Admittedly, I’m a bit of a picky eater, but I’m willing to at least try new things, and this is one of the best times to experiment. The displays are also interesting to look at, the shows are neat to watch, and I get to experience things beyond my usual range of interests. This was my third year volunteering for the Edmonton Heritage Festival, if I remember correctly, and I’ll probably continue to do so in the future, so long as circumstances allow.