It’s difficult to talk about downtown Halifax’s erstwhile Halloween Saturday Mardi Gras party without getting bogged down in details like debating the relative merits of a traditional wine skin versus hiding a pint bottle of lemon gin down your pants. Perhaps that’s why it’s so difficult to pin down when Mardi Gras started (sometime in the early ’80s), when it ended (corporate memory at HRM pegs Mardi Gras’s last call in 1995) and where its geography lay (several streets were closed but was it the Dome to Pizza Corner? The Grande Parade to the main library?).
Haligonians who remember, if hazily, the annual celebration will know it was a chance to come downtown dressed up to join in on a massive Halloween street party. And if JC Douglas has his way, people had better start digging out their Monty Python and the Holy Grail knights who say NI! costumes now.
“That kind of event is just what downtown needs,” says Douglas, director of programming at Q104, who since mid-September has been leading a team trying to get Halifax its Mardi Gras back this month. “There’s no kind of event like that in October at all. We’ve been finding a lot of positive reaction when we ask people about it.”
But, the 41-year-old says, “I don’t want to talk a lot about what made go away, because I’m interested in making it come back.”
The plan for Douglas’s version of Mardi Gras—which, if organizers get all their liquor-license and police-duty ducks in a row in time, will take place October 29, likely in the Granville Street Mall—would be a smaller event than the old Mardi Gras’ 50,000-thick free-roaming throng. It would include performances from three or four local musicians. It also wouldn’t be free.
“When the pictures of came out everyone was wondering what can we do?” says Douglas. “And we’re in the position as a radio station to promote things. And it seemed like was something that our audience wanted to help with. The whole reason we want to resurrect the name Mardi Gras is because of the connection with New Orleans.”
Paul MacKinnon, executive director of the Downtown Halifax Business Commission, isn’t sold. MacKinnon’s organization supports downtown street parties, backing, for instance, the Economy Shoe Shop’s 10-year anniversary party and the Atlantic Film Festival’s recent red-carpet Opening Gala, which took place on a similar-sized block to the Granville Mall and hosted 3000 partiers. “Those were small steps,” MacKinnon says, “toward showing that kind of concept could work again.”
The DHBC’s marketing committee has, over the years, tossed around the idea of resurrecting Mardi Gras. “Some of our merchants really liked Mardi Gras,” MacKinnon says. “But we’ve said the first thing we should do if we’re considering relaunching it is to rename it. Because police and city officials don’t necessarily have very fond memories of Mardi Gras.”
Theresa Brien, spokesperson for Halifax Regional Police, says her organization would have “serious public safety concerns” if Mardi Gras were to come back in its previous format. The biggest issue is geography. “If you have an event in Grand Parade, you can put controls around it. You can post officers at the exits and entrances.”
But the old Mardi Gras, which spilled past its temporarily closed downtown streets, was “too big and too unmanageable,” Brien says. “Add on top of that people are consuming alcohol. People are consuming alcohol to excess and others are committing property damage. And then you also have masks and costumes, which for some people can provide a false bravado which means they might do things they wouldn’t do otherwise.”
John O’Brien has a list of the problems that led to Mardi Gras’ demise: robberies, violence, sexual assaults, sexual grabbing and liquor law contravention among them. “I guess,” explains the manager of corporate communications for the Halifax Regional Municipality, “the number of incidents had increased over the years.
“The general thought that I have heard,” O’Brien says, “is that not many people are interested in seeing it revived. But that’s no reflection on a benefit for the Hurricane.”
“Mardi Gras did get a little crazy,” Douglas says. “With that many people and it being free - which doesn’t attach a kind of value to the event. But we figure our event may be different. It is a fundraiser and there’s a great cause behind it. There would be a donation charge for entrance. And we’d be trying to resurrect more of a feel of the New Orleans experience. More so than just having a crazy drunken party.”