Members of the public sent Ottawa Bluesfest organizers a loud and clear message Tuesday night: a lot more needs to be done to make the capital’s largest music festival safer.
About 75 people attended the Open House at the Tom Brown Arena after Bluesfest decided to seek public input on this year’s upcoming festival. The decision followed a particularly troubled and controversial 2017 edition.
Last July’s event was notable for incidents of sexual assault, fighting and hospitalizations stemming from drug and alcohol abuse. There was also a tumultuous and frightening evening in which a mob of hundreds of young people stormed the site, toppled gates and threw rocks, striking at least one security guard.
“At the main gate when I was going in on a Saturday night, there were three separate altercations,” remembers Stephanie Copeland, a Bluesfest regular who was at the Open House. “One was with a security guard. One was between two individuals and one was with a police officer where one of the patrons was screaming and yelling and punching him.”
Copeland says she saw a significant change for the worse at last year’s Bluesfest compared to previous years. She’s not alone. At the Open House, she and others were divided into about a dozen groups, each of which determined what they consider to be the main problems with the festival. Almost every group identified security as the main issue to be addressed going into the 25th anniversary edition this summer.
Under the heading of security, participants cited a variety of components including crowd control, fence jumping, underage drinking, sexual assault and off-site offences by festival goers. There was also the feeling that as Bluesfest brings in more acts specifically to attract young people, the risk of trouble seems to rise.
“We love Bluesfest. We like the vibrancy it brings to the neighbourhood, to the city at large,” says Ottawa city councillor Catherine McKenney, whose Somerset ward is home to Bluesfest’s LeBreton Flats location. “But the neighbours there really experienced a lot of vandalism, urinating, defecating in and around family homes, children’s areas.”
Immediately after last year’s Bluesfest concluded, Executive Director Mark Monahan says he received a lot of complaints. The concerns prompted him to organize the Open House in order to get a better sense of what the public feels the festival needs to improve and how to do it.
We love Bluesfest. We like the vibrancy it brings to the neighbourhood, to the city at large… But the neighbours there really experienced a lot of vandalism, urinating, defecating in and around family homes, children’s areas.
“I think one of the ideas is to let residents know that we live in this city too. We do take their concerns seriously and we do want to address them.”
The Open House participants offered a variety of solutions that ranged from the use of drones for aerial surveillance, to increased police presence and better lighting to fenced corrals with walkways in between that would make it easier for security workers to attend to trouble when it happens.
McKenney is pleased with the collaborative approach and is hopeful things will improve. At the same time, she says the problems that erupted last year cannot be allowed to happen again.
“People don’t want a repeat of 2017. 2017, for a variety of reasons, was a more difficult season for Bluesfest. We’re all partners in this. So absolutely (this can’t be repeated).
People don’t want a repeat of 2017. 2017, for a variety of reasons, was a more difficult season for Bluesfest.
Monahan isn’t making any promises about specifics. But he says the festival he created is serious about addressing the issues, security in particular, and that his organization will be taking whatever steps it can to ensure better behaviour and a safer environment for everyone.
“I think that we’re listening to what people are saying and as an organization we’ll go back and say look, how do we address these things. Maybe we can’t solve every problem but what can we do to move positively to alleviate some of the issues. I think we will try to make changes as we can within reason to address their concerns and make things better.”
Some of those measures could be announced as soon as next month. Bluesfest 2018 runs from July 5–15.