In the beginning…
The Celtic Festival was Bill Cannon’s brainchild and really got off the ground because of Mark Hobson’s huge circle of friends. We were new to Celtic music and had just started the Hornby Celtic Band when Bill said one night, “Wouldn’t it be fun to get together everyone we know who plays this music?” Mark said, “Great idea! I’ve got a spare bedroom,” and proceeded to contact everyone he knew who might be interested.
The first festival, Hornby Island, 1984
The first one was a pretty casual, grassroots affair. (Not everyone stayed in that one spare bedroom!) We booked the Hornby Island Hall for Saturday night. People arrived on Friday night and hung out, playing music, in various houses on the island, on Friday night and Saturday daytime. Saturday evening was a kind of open stage concert and a dance with a pick-up dance band (under the guidance of a red-headed fiddler – Dale) made up of anyone who wanted to get up there and join in. We all had a blast. It was so much fun that a delegation from Salt Spring Island declared that they would host it the following year.
The second festival, Salt Spring Island, 1985
The Salt Spring folks upped the whole scale of the thing with workshops, dance demonstrations, an open stage, multiple venues and a paid dance band. The workshops were a hit and we did that again the next year. That was the year that Spirit of the West suddenly appeared on the open stage on Sunday morning and became the buzz of the festival. Nobody in the crowd had heard of them before. The next year the festival was held on Gabriola Island, and it became an event with three homes for a few years.
Two more decades of annual gatherings…
After a glitch in the planning, we decided to hold the event on Hornby every second year. Other places could take turns on the in between years. Salt Spring, Gabriola, Port Alberni, Ladysmith, Black Creek, and Cowichan have all hosted the festival. We were always emphatic about it being a participants’ festival and it’s stayed fairly true to its roots, never becoming a “spectator” event. We’ve done our best to feature Celtic music rather than folk music in general, a rule Bill Cannon once enforced (only half-jokingly) with a yellow card borrowed from the soccer field.
The passing of a legend…
Bill Cannon sadly passed away several years ago, signaling the end of an era for Hornby Island as the home base of this beloved community event. He is survived by his wife June, who wrote the history above. She has shared it, along with sage planning advice from many years of experience, with different organizers each year as the festival ping ponged between Cowichan and Black Creek. After the 2018 edition, the general feeling was that this is all way too much work for one or two people, and the festival’s future was looking precarious.
2019 and 2023…
A few die-hards refused to let the festival go. A non-profit society and a board of directors was made up to share the load. For simplicity’s sake, we decided to keep the festival in one place from now on. We chose Errington Hall, which has a fairly similar history, aesthetic, and community spirit to the island where the festival was born. Our first Errington edition was held in 2019.
The pandemic and “the new normal”
The COVID-19 pandemic posed some huge challenges for the survival of this beloved community event. In 2020 and 2021, we did our best to keep the spirit alive with online events and workshops, and returned to an in-person gathering in 2022. On our 40th anniversary, after all that’s happened and with COVID still circulating freely, we feel differently about organizing an event where people could get sick and not recover. After much soul searching and deep conversation, the board has decided that 2023 will be our final year as the “official” Islands Celtic Festival. We don’t know yet what the future holds for this event or this community, but we are open to suggestions!
Many thanks to June Cannon for this festival history, and to Gordon Lafleur for his collection of photos from the 2012 festival (Hornby Island). 2018 (Black Creek) and 2019 (Errington Hall) photos provided by Kerri Coombs.