TORONTO – Visitors to the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto were greeted by picket lines and chats of protest on Friday as the annual event opened amid a labour dispute involving hundreds of workers.
The CNE, a colourful fair that’s set to run for a little more than two weeks, draws large crowds to Exhibition Place near Toronto’s waterfront, just west of the downtown core.
This year’s event is taking place as some 400 stagehands and technical employees remain involved in a dispute with Exhibition Place’s board of governors that saw the workers locked out on July 20.
The union representing the workers said the employees have been without a contract since Dec. 2017, and will be walking picket lines through the duration of the CNE.
“We will be here everyday,” said Justin Antheunis, president of Local 58 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, who noted that Exhibition Place brought in outside workers to set up and supervise various events at the fair.
“We only got into this business because we love it,” he said. “And now, to just be tossed aside because they want to find ways to do everything cheaper, and to have no loyalty for those workers who have been doing this for a long time, it is disheartening for all of us.”
The Exhibition Place board said, however, that the locked-out employees were offered multiple opportunities to work during the CNE but turned them down.
“Ultimately the event had to go on,” said Coun. Justin Di Ciano, vice-chair of the Exhibition Place board of governors.
The board said it wants to update the workers’ contract to reflect the “highly competitive” marketplace and that it thinks the dispute should be settled at the bargaining table rather than in arbitration like the union has suggested.
“They need to understand that we need to become competitive in a very different market that existed when we signed our labour contract in the 1920s,” said Di Ciano. “Our hope is they see it from our side and they understand that if we become more competitive, we will be able to bring more events and that is jobs for them.”
Antheunis said the union is ready to engage in discussions with the board at any time.
Toronto Mayor John Tory said ensuring that visitors to the CNE can enjoy the event is a priority.
“I think the union would agree with me that we all want to make sure that the 140 CNE is very successful and everybody feels comfortable coming down here,” he said at the opening ceremony of the event commonly referred to as “The Ex.”
The event features midway games, rides, vendors and various shows, among other attractions. Its edible offerings are also a big draw — this year’s options include everything from a kimchi hot dog to a $100 golden hamburger made with real 24-karat gold.
The event, founded in 1879, is one of the largest fairs in North America and will run until Sept. 3.