Music festivals in Canada

March 15, 2016
Nova Scotia s Celtic Colours

All photos courtesy of Stephen Simons

Sobriety may be considered counterculture at most music festivals where drugs and alcohol are often pivotal features of the experience, but in the Reford Rural Municipality of Saskatchewan it’s the norm. The Leipzig Annual Musical Festival bills itself as a drug and alcohol-free event, relying on attendees to get their fix from the music. So on May 30, I ventured to see if the experience of attending this unusual festival could be more fun than it sounded. If nothing else, I’d get to see Codie Prevost, Rosie and the Riveters, and Jay Semko of the Northern Pikes.

At one time in his life, 59-year-old Archie, who chose not to give his full name, wouldn’t go to concerts or social gatherings without taking something. “I went to a concert in Edmonton, ” the attendee said. “I was 18. ZZ Top was playing with Heart... We got into mescaline. I could have sworn that concert was three days long.” Six months sober as a recovering alcoholic, Archie prefers Leipzig’s temperance policy. “I’m getting to see a lot of people I went through treatment with here.”

The hamlet of Leipzig consists of a church, two nearby farms, and the Leipzig Serenity Retreat which hosted the festival for its fourth year. The privately run substance abuse treatment centre puts on the day to fund pro-bono programs for recovering addicts. Archie sat in the kitchen of the centre as festival goers passed through. Many said hi to Archie and there was a general familiarity at Leipzig. The festival felt like a high school reunion, only the alumni worked to kick drug habits and learned to curb their triggers instead of teasing each other before prom.

When he first arrived at Leipzig’s treatment centre, Archie was “scared, ” not knowing how to function without alcohol. He had been drinking since he was 12-years-old. Shortly after retiring as a rail worker at 55, he woke up and realized he was “caught in a storm.”

The festival consisted of families sitting in lawn chairs on a green space in front of a stage. Almost no one was dancing. Vendors sold burgers, souvenirs and Hutterite-made goods, including sugar cookies with the word “Leipzig” written in neon frosting. There was no security going through bags at the front gate, only a sign written in black marker on white poster board, reading “No alcohol and no drugs.”

The Leipzig centre dominates the festival grounds. It is an improbable 40-room, 3000 square-foot brick building on a remote acreage. The closest town is Wilkie, a 30-minutes drive north, with the city of Saskatoon two hours west. Program director Jacqueline Hoffman said isolation is their best security. “A lot of the people who come out here are between the ages of 50 and 70, so we don’t have the whole red-solo-cup, puking situation that a lot of festivals do.” She said the event attracts an average of 350 attendees every year.

The centre was originally built in 1927 as a convent and school run by a group of German nuns and a priest. After the local school district closed the building down in 1969, it auctioned the property many times over 40 years. The building functioned as a bakery, dentist office, bed and breakfast, and other ventures, until Ardyth Wilson, now 63, bought the dilapidated property in 2008. She has been a recovering alcoholic for 30 years. Understanding addicts are often anxious about having fun without drugs, her vision for the festival was to give her clients a space to celebrate.

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