Opinions & Features Workshop (Oct 26th)

Photo courtesy Marda Gras Street Festival

A Calgary cult classic: Marda Gras Street Festival

By Rachneet Randhawa, August 24 2021—

Marda Gras Street Festival made a comeback and was happy to announce its return in 2021. This is Calgary’s longest-running family-friendly street festival that hosts over 35,000 visitors during a single day and takes place annually in the heart of Marda Loop in downtown Calgary. The Gauntlet sat down for an interview with the festival’s director Shannon McNally to learn more.

Featuring a diverse palette of vendors including delectable food trucks, local artisans selling handmade jewelry, dancers, musicians and politicians promoting their campaigns, it’s a fun mixed bag of entertainment and shopping. 

“Its purpose is to highlight the local businesses [and] connect the neighbourhood with the local arts and culture scene,” said McNally. “Marda Gas also attracts people from outside of the surrounding areas and people come from all over the city, so it’s a great time to showcase the neighbourhoods and the businesses within it.”

The festival’s origins were founded by a local business organization known today as the Marda Loop Business Improvement Area (BIA) around 36 years ago. Currently, there are 15 BIAs in the City of Calgary — think Kensington, 17th Ave, or Inglewood  — that present main street areas that advocate for small businesses. 

“So, [BIAs] do everything from liaison with city departments to doing large-scale marketing campaigns to engaging in streetscape programs such as flowers and banners,” said McNally. 

Marda Gras was originally supposed to be a flea market of sorts with live bands and other attractions but was relaunched as Mada Gras Day in 1987. Unlike the famous Mardi Gras in New Orleans, it’s not an exact imitation of it, but does draw on certain aspects like the beads and masks theme. McNally said the name was chosen as a play on words that was catchy and recognizable. 

Marda Gras’ most popular event is the Pet Pageant which started about 10 years ago. All proceeds go to Tails of Help pet charity to help fund essential care for ill or injured pets of owners who are facing financial difficulty.

“We invite local personalities to be hosts and judges and the local community can register their pet into the pageant, and greet them across the stage in costume,” said McNally. Some of these furry creatures go on to become influencers, especially those who win the best pet championship.

When prompted how COVID-19 affected the programming of the festivities, McNally said they had to pivot given the sheer amount of investment that goes into event planning and coordination. It was difficult to make final confirmations given the changing nature of the health restrictions in Alberta that all public events faced this past year. They also had a limited budget this year which is why they focused on street performers instead of hosting stages and didn’t have as many vendors. 

Some positives, however, were that some wonderful businesses in Marda Loop stepped up by giving sponsorships. The festival is also a platform for inner-city nonprofits that give back to the community, which shows the community initiative Marda Gras facilitates.  

“We have quite a few community associations in the neighbourhood that participate and nonprofits we offer space to for free so that they can come out and advocate and build awareness for their causes,” said McNally. “Marda Gras is all about building community — it’s a chance to meet your neighbours and reconnect with what’s happening in the area.” 

McNally said that there’s something for everyone at Marda Gras and that street festivals are a unique experience for community members. 

“Street festivals, in general, are [a] happy and exciting experience for most people — the fact that it’s free, it’s accessible, it’s open to the public, all of those things make it something to look forward to and that people will attend,” she said. “Whether it’s for half an hour or a few hours I think there’s something for everyone to enjoy.”

Although Marda Gras only comes around once a year, events like those showcase the importance of thinking globally, acting locally and giving back to your community by scouring for local talent in food, music, crafts and then some. 

“We all need more opportunities just to see what’s out there and to connect cultures and understand each other better. I think that these types of street festivals and free events are great at bringing people together and showcasing the diversity that we have in our city,” McNally said. 

In times when our generation feels so disconnected from each other, events like this are a sultry reminder that stepping outside and having a real conversation and interacting with one another is one of the best ways we can come together as a community.

For those festival fanatics, Marda Gras will be back in full swing next year with a more-than-amazing day of celebration to look forward to. Especially if you are a newcomer to Calgary, it’s a warm welcome to what the city has to offer. So keep calm and festival on.


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