Randy Boyagoda is a novelist and professor of English at the University of Toronto.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis should take a break from campaigning and bring his young daughter to Toronto. No, not to get in line to see Taylor Swift in a year, but instead to visit the Canadian National Exhibition, which begins its annual end-of-summer two-week run this weekend.
I say as much after extensive coverage of Mr. DeSantis’s recent visit to the Iowa State Fair, which features prominently during presidential election cycles because of the Iowa caucuses’ first-in-the-nation status for the primaries. At this year’s fair, Mr. DeSantis played a pork-grilling man of the people, winning prizes at wholesome game booths and taking in gargantuan butter sculptures with his family, with his young daughter seen often on his shoulders.
During his visit, Mr. DeSantis was trailed by jeering and chanting protesters from the left and a much larger and louder contingent from the Trump right. Above, a small plane flew carrying a banner making fun of the Florida Governor while a woman of unknown affiliations yelled expletives at him while he was carrying his daughter around. I’m sure none of this surprised Mr. DeSantis, given the decisions he’s made about his public and professional ambitions, but I doubt this is what his daughter was expecting when she learned she was going to the fair with her family.
The recent partisan circus at the Iowa State Fair is consistent with the corrosive, aggressive and near-total politicization of American life these days: The very act of going to the fair can be a provocative and divisive experience, for young and old alike. Granted, I’m invoking an extreme circumstance; no doubt other days at state fairs in Iowa and across the United States aren’t shot through with such high-stakes and news-making friction and tension. But at the same time, what happened to Mr. DeSantis is an extreme manifestation of a pattern that holds across the U.S. these days and likewise, if not as intensely, in Canada: What once felt like ordinary and uncomplicated personal acts in public instead have become occasions for either making a statement or having a statement made about you. This situation obtains, for instance, when it comes to your chosen sources for the news, and if and where and how you worship, and if and where you still wear a mask around other people, and, especially this past summer, if there are movies you absolutely will see and movies you absolutely won’t see. On this latter point, I add, this wasn’t the ostensibly revealing choice of Barbie versus Oppenheimer; it was the substantially revealing choice of Barbie and/or Oppenheimer versus Sound of Freedom (jumbo popcorn on me, with real butter topping, goes to the first person who is unself-consciously happy to see all three of these movies).
All of these choices and many others have come to serve as occasions to show who you are and where you stand on matters of culture and politics, or to incite others to make judgments about you. This tempts toward the extreme opposite – giving up on it all and just staying home, by yourself. But that’s a politically telling and consequential choice as well, as Hillary Clinton argues in a new essay for The Atlantic, where she points to what she calls the “weaponization of loneliness” and cites, in support of this characterization of a robust, interconnected threat against personal well-being and the body politic, U.S. Surgeon-General Vivek Murthy’s declaration of an “epidemic of loneliness and isolation” in America. In another recent Atlantic essay, and consistent with Ms. Clinton and Dr. Murthy’s respective diagnoses, New York Times columnist David Brooks asks when, why and how did Americans become so mean, a question that Ron DeSantis’s daughter might have posed after her recent trip to the Iowa State Fair with her father.
Against all of this, I offer a trip to the CNE.
Like generations of attendees across three centuries and as much as a child as an adult, going to the CNE with my family, through the grand Princes’ Gates that open onto the Exhibition Fairgrounds complex on the Lakeshore west side of Toronto, is a straightforwardly happy end-of-summer rite of passage.
The Ex was, in its first form, far from Toronto-centric or specific. According to The Canadian Encyclopedia, the Canadian National Exhibition began in Western Canada, in the 1840s, as a rotating agricultural fair. There was a similar interest in a regional version of a rotating fair in Southern Ontario before the CNE became a permanent fixture in Toronto in 1878. At that point it was known as the Toronto Industrial Exhibition (it was renamed in 1912), suggesting an early and often patriotic interest in showcasing the latest in the host city or country’s technological achievements. This was consistent with what happened at especially high-profile versions of these events elsewhere, such as London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 and its International Exhibition in 1862, which certainly weren’t free of prejudiced programming and exploitative labour practices. Sometimes these events led to murder, as Erik Larson recounts in The Devil in the White City, his non-fiction account of a serial killer’s machinations at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair.
While technology, and also arts and culture, were on offer at all such exhibitions, the dominant offerings and attractions at the Toronto Industrial Exhibition remained agricultural, which was in keeping with its origins. Indeed, while the CNE became fixed in the centre of the country, similar such annual major summertime exhibitions were founded elsewhere in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, back in the West: the Pacific National Exhibition in Vancouver, the Calgary Stampede, the Saskatoon Exhibition and Red River Exhibition in Winnipeg. The rise of these annual exhibitions in Canada, consistent with their spread across the United States, became public occasions for proffering a mixture of entertainment and education. This would especially be the case in urban settings, which provided attendees with amusing and engaging distraction from the grind and doldrums of daily life, and also invitations for attendees to understand themselves as part of something larger than their immediate circumstances, whether this manifested as more exciting and worldly, or more connected to distant places and ways of life that had been left behind for opportunities in the big city.
To be sure, at various stages in its history the CNE was far from immune from the pressures of the larger world and indeed could be directive in response. First World War-era versions were noticeably patriotic, if not jingoistic, as Toronto writer and researcher Jamie Bradburn surfaced during the pandemic: Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II was a recurring target for fun and games and funny posters, while civic demonstrations of Canada’s commitment to the war effort took the form of explicitly “patriotic” fireworks displays and some 1,200 people parading and dancing in the military uniforms of the various nations contributing to the war efforts of the British Empire. A century later, there’s more cat and dog shows than large-scale imperial soldier cosplay, but in 2016, the popular annual air show was the source of public debate over concerns that the sights and sounds of fighter jets soaring and rumbling across city skies were traumatizing to newly arrived refugees from civil war-racked Syria.
It makes sense that particular historical moments exert pressure on events like the CNE, which generates this kind of attention because of its singularity in 2023, while continuing to resist total capitulation to either hermetically sealed nostalgia or overly reactive attentiveness to the news cycle. That’s both made possible and necessary by the nature of who goes to the Ex: 1.5 million people attended in 2022, and it’s hard not to imagine the same, if not more, this year. At such a scale, the CNE cannot, and should not, be just for some people and not for others. Drawn largely from the Greater Toronto Area, CNE attendees are so inherently diverse as to make it possible for anyone making a decision to be part of a long-standing tradition in the public life of Canada to do so without this being understood or assessed as a sectarian political act or singular cultural statement. This is simply not plausible because of who you encounter at the Ex and what you do, together. Where else, these days, can you find tens of thousands of people gathered together on a daily basis who are urban and suburban and rural, multigenerational and newcomer, tourist and local, and also occupying a variety of socio-economic positions and religio-cultural affiliations? Notice, I didn’t point to political identity: I have no idea how people at the Ex vote, and not just by comparison with what I could figure out fast by visiting the Iowa State Fair in the August before the Iowa caucuses. Politics feels elsewhere at the CNE.
That’s because in place of it, there’s spontaneous conversations during long lineups for the gondola, and easily asked-for-and-given reviews of massive corn on the cob and barbecued turkey legs; there’s joining the crowd in cheering someone on a hot streak at one of the game booths, and making space for others with the tight seating for the musical and acrobatic and four-legged performances; there’s inspecting sweet pink families of pigs in close quarters and visiting prized cows whose dramatic and frequent public defecations are reliable sources of wonder and entertainment no matter your age or education level or country of origin. Because of all of this, you can reliably have incidental, low-stakes, positive encounters with people who very likely don’t share the same ultimate and ordinary commitments as you do. In fact, for once, for this one day or night at the fair, you’re not thinking or worrying too much about this; you’re not assessing particular statements and gestures as indicators of potential division or agreement (they’re just tiny hot doughnuts); you’re not responding to the presence of a glad-handing politico, or even making the decision to go to the CNE in the first place as a thoughtful defence against weaponizations and epidemics of loneliness and isolation.
You’re just there, at the CNE, having a good time with everyone else, and you’re doing it like everyone else. Yes, that’s right, you’re like everyone else, and you like being like everyone else, and you actually like everyone else, at least for a few fun hours at the Ex, come summer’s end.