Community party planned this weekend for Killarney’s 200th birthday

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by Warren Schlote

KILLARNEY—After two years of pandemic delays, the Town of Killarney will belatedly mark its 200th anniversary this Saturday, offering a small-scale family event in lieu of a supersized summer celebration.

The settler Town of Killarney began in 1820, but before that it had long been an important site for Indigenous peoples. Its name in Anishinaabemowin is Shebahonaning, which translates to ‘canoe passage’ or ‘narrow channel.’

Organizers had been planning a big anniversary bash since roughly 2015, but those plans abruptly halted with the shutdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Killarney Mayor Nancy Wirtz said this smaller event, held after the heyday of summer, will be better suited to the families who have called Killarney their home for generations.

“I think the vision that the local people had was more of that kind of event, geared to local residents and bringing back the people who used to live here,” said Mayor Wirtz, “that family-reunion feel, as opposed to a large tourism draw. We want to celebrate the families that have lived here, and still live here.”

The outcome: a free, all-ages daytime party on Saturday, September 24 between 11 am and 5 pm.

It will all happen at the Killarney Community Centre and feature attractions like a climbing wall, barbecue, bubble soccer, mini-putt and a bouncy castle. The Killarney Volunteer Fire Department will benefit from a dunk tank fundraiser.

In the evening, a ‘Diamonds and Denim’ dinner and dance will be held at the Veterans Memorial Hall. Mayor Wirtz said all 150 of the dinner tickets have already sold out, but there is extra space for dancers, with a $10 door fee. The dance will follow the dinner, with dining beginning at 6:30 pm.

There will also be presentations to mark the anniversary, live music and a DJ for the dance, then fireworks to cap off the evening.

“I think we’ve landed in a really nice place, and people are looking forward to it,” said Mayor Wirtz.

There’s a legacy component to the celebration, too. At the event, organizers will unveil a digital history exhibit to showcase old photos and footage, along with stories from long-time residents of how the town has evolved over recent years.

“It’s not finished yet but we’ve got it started, and will be doing a live demo at the dinner on the 24th. It should go live in early October,” said Mayor Wirtz.

This is an ongoing project, she said, and the township welcomes people with old artifacts to have them photographed and share some information about them.

“People talk about our town’s rich history a lot, and we hear a lot about the need to record stories so we can keep sharing them after our elders pass. This is our way of doing that, and also making them available more widely, so you don’t have to be here during our museum’s open hours to learn about the history,” Mayor Wirtz said.

With a nod to the fact that Indigenous peoples have been stewards of this land since long before colonization, Mayor Wirtz said she hoped the digital exhibit could include Indigenous artifacts and stories about the area. She said the town had plans ready for the following weekend, September 30, to mark the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

There was an Indigenous element to the town’s original plans for a large-scale celebration two years ago. A large committee had formed in prior years to help plan the celebration, including people involved with Indigenous arts. Wiikwemkoong superstar Crystal Shawanda was slated to play a Friday night concert, according to an archived copy of the original event plan.

The pandemic pushed back the event by a year, then a second. In that time, Mayor Wirtz said the planners had to shift their focus somewhat, both due to original committee members moving on to other projects and less enthusiasm from the community as the actual anniversary came and went.

While originally, the festival was devised to turn the anniversary into an economic development opportunity, the town moved toward making the event by Killarney residents and for Killarney residents.

There were some small scale recognitions of the town’s anniversary in 2020, however. Ontario Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell visited the community that fall for a tour, fish fry and fireworks.

Mayor Wirtz said she’s seen a lot of change in the 18 years since she’s lived in Killarney, and said its sense of community remains strong as it heads into the next 200 years.

“There’s a lot of really exciting things this council has got the ball rolling on, and I hope the next council will pick up the baton,” she said. (Mayor Wirtz is not running for re-election this October.)

Some of those initiatives include setting development guidelines along the town’s waterfront roadway, Channel Street, and working on initiatives to support older citizens, such as building a long-term care facility.

“I think it’s going to be about a balance of some development and growth, along with preserving what makes Killarney special in the first place,” she said.

More information about this Saturday’s program is available through the Killarney municipal office, or its website, MunicipalityOfKillarney.ca.