Last summer felt like a return to form for many of the festivals and community events on Vancouver Island. After two years of sporadic activity and yo-yo-ing restrictions, most fared well. Some longstanding events could not pivot quickly enough, however, and lost their foothold in the market. Others — such as Rifflandia and the Victoria Ska & Reggae Festival — flourished. Rifflandia returned from a four-year hiatus to post record attendance numbers in 2022.
Producers of the music festival made another big splash this week when they announced the upcoming edition of Rifflandia will be held on two weekends for the first time ever in September.
It won’t be the only significant change in the marketplace. Capital City Comic Con and Laketown Rock are both absent from the event calendar this year, while two behemoths from 2022, the 55+ B.C. Games and Northwest Deuce Days, which drew tens of thousands of visitors to the city, are not annual events. Those holes might not get filled.
Producers face fewer unknowns this year, which is good news. And many received funding from the province and City of Victoria, which will help bottom lines creep back into business-as-usual territory.
Patrons have more options than ever before, however. Costs have also risen sharply, which is being reflected in ticket and food and beverage pricing, so something will have to give.
Or maybe it won’t. In these live-for-the-moment times, people no longer want to sacrifice social engagements. The fear of missing out is mightily persuasive when the sun is shining, so festivals might reap the rewards this summer.
Our annual summer event preview will touch on 80 things to do on and around the Island, from multi-day music festivals to small-scale community gatherings.
Everything from a block party on Cook Street and festival of one-act plays to a bluegrass hoedown in Duncan is on tap. Though it’s not comprehensive, this preview is meant to offer a wide cross-section of what the region has to offer culturally. (Check out our list of the "best of the rest.")
VICTORIA SKA & REGGAE FESTIVAL
June 21–25, Victoria
More artistic changes are afoot as the former Victoria Ska Festival (which added reggae to its title a few years back) leans into hip-hop more than ever this year. Chali 2Na from Jurassic 5, scratch DJ Kid Koala and conscious rapper Brother Ali are among the headliners, but the so-called “Festival of the People” has not forgotten its roots. The Aggrolites return to the event after an extended absence, while reggae legend Maxi Priest makes his long-awaited debut. The popular event had its best installment ever last year, 22 years after its inception, and is enjoying the goodwill that comes from being one of the longest-running music festivals in Victoria.
TD VICTORIA INTERNATIONAL JAZZ FESTIVAL
June 22-July 2, Victoria
The grandfather of Victoria festivals, now in its 40th year, has a sizable footprint. The 11-day festival branched into Esquimalt for the first time ever last year, and though its outdoor stage in the township was hampered by poor weather, many liked the move. The 2023 edition will continue to have a big presence city-wide, with an estimated operating budget of $1.3 million resulting in 300 musicians giving 70 performances on 10 stages. Organizers expect headlining sets from Chris Botti, Snarky Puppy, Molly Johnson, BadBadNotGood and Sona Jobarteh to attract up to 35,000 people.
VICTORIA PRIDE FESTIVAL
June 29–July 9, Victoria
The first of six Victoria Pride Festival events gets underway June 29, with the hugely popular celebration coming to a close in grand style July 9, following the parade (though it is not confirmed, it appears that the parade will once again start downtown, after setting off from Vic West last year). With everything from the Memorial Drag Ball Game to the Big Gay Dog Walk rendered in spectacular fashion, Pride takes over the city during its run, with more than 40,000 people attending each year. The majority of events are free, which is the point of all the pomp and circumstance. Everyone is welcome.
June 30-July 2, Lake Cowichan
Shaggy, Portugal the Man, Third Eye Blind, Aqua, Everlast (from House of Pain), Reignwolf, Classified, K’Naan and Bif Naked, among others, lead this eclectic festival held over the summer’s first long weekend. Many of the top acts will be making their Vancouver Island debuts. Laketown Rock, which is also held at the same 250-acre site in Lake Cowichan, is sitting out this year, so Laketown Shakedown will draw the exclusive attention of rock fans from the mid-Island. With reggae-pop king Shaggy closing out the event, fans looking for an old-school party will certainly find one here.
CANADA DAY VICTORIA
July 1, Victoria
One of the city’s enduring community events, Canada Day always draws a crowd, though a few speed bumps have emerged in recent weeks. Its title sponsor pulled out of the event on May 2, but organizers (Surrey’s Penmar Community Arts Society and Vancouver’s Blue Coast Event Group) expect the event to go on, thanks to an injection of funding from the City of Victoria. Main Stage performers are not normally announced until closer to the event, but there’s always a lot to celebrate, including the fireworks finale. Mark the date.
PHILLIPS BACKYARD CONCERT SERIES
July 7-9 and July 11-13, Victoria
The Phillips Backyard Concert Series debuted with a bang last year as one of the city’s first post-pandemic events. A full year of preparation has yielded a remarkably inspired effort. Led by Anderson Paak (as DJ Pee Wee), Fleet Foxes, Lord Huron, Peach Pit, Allen Stone, Jesse Roper, Snotty Nose Rez Kids, and JJ Wilde, the concert series is stuffed with talent. Instead of three two-day weekends, the event held at Phillips Brewing features 31 acts spread over two three-day periods this year, imbuing it with a festival feel. Tickets are selling well, which is no surprise given the lineup.
VANCOUVER ISLAND MUSIC FESTIVAL
July 14-16, Courtenay
If you haven’t visited the Comox Valley Exhibition Grounds for an installment of the Vancouver Island Music Festival, you’re long overdue. Inventive programming is the name of the game at MusicFest, and the lineup is rarely dependent on headliners to sell out each year (which it does.) Having perennial favourite Sarah McLachlan on the roster doesn’t hurt, however, and may result in tickets being gone before gates open. Rickie Lee Jones, Galactic, Dave Alvin, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and the Bros. Landreth only add to the riches. Buy your tickets early to avoid disappointment.
TD ART GALLERY PAINT-IN
July 15, Victoria
The largest summer arts festival on Vancouver Island continues to grow, with 30,000 annual visitors taking in the event. Held each July on Moss Street between Fort Street and Dallas Road, the paint-in, which began more than three decades ago, brings together more than 160 artists from every medium for a busy day in the sun. The details of edition No. 34 have yet to be announced.
SYMPHONY IN THE SUMMER FESTIVAL
July 27-Aug. 5, Victoria
There is no replacing the almighty Symphony Splash, but 10 days of unique programming comes pretty close. The Victoria Symphony offers a wide range of events during its Symphony in the Summer Festival, including ones at Christ Church Cathedral, The Atrium and Butchart Gardens. Those are ticketed performances, but the free public concerts are certainly worth checking out, with Market Square and Beacon Hill Park’s Cameron Bandshell taking part in the festivities. More details to come.
SUNFEST COUNTRY MUSIC FESTIVAL
Aug. 3-6, Lake Cowichan
On paper, the Sunfest Country Music Festival is four days long, but diehards tend to tack an extra day on either side — that’s how committed they are to the province’s top country music festival. The lineup typically includes top U.S. headliners each year. Sunfest 2023 is true to form, with appearances from Blake Shelton, Billy Currington, Lonestar and rising star Lainey Wilson, who some think will steal the festival right out from under top dog Shelton. One of the best times to be had on the Island this summer.
Aug. 23–Sept. 3, Victoria
Intrepid Theatre has yet to announce the schedule and roster of performers heading to the Victoria Fringe, but 110 companies applied for spots. Organizers will open the doors of five venues across the city — some of which are said to be unconventional this year — to local, national and international artists for 11 days of alternative theatre. Fringe festivals across the country are where many find their feet before embarking on fruitful careers, which keeps audiences engaged each year. The event has been a tradition unlike few others since 1986, and rarely disappoints.
Sept. 2-4, Victoria
Saanich Fair did blockbuster business last year, to the surprise of no one. Coming out of the pandemic, it was like comfort food for fans, with animals and other agricultural exhibits, music, dance and midway rides on picturesque fairgrounds. The fair will celebrate its 155th birthday on Labour Day weekend, and has plenty of indoor and outdoor activities. This year’s theme is “Jammin’ at the Fair,” which we can assume applies to both the musical acts and preserved foods being featured. Details are scarce at this point, but does that really matter? Those who love the Saanich Fair are going anyway.
Sept. 7-9 and Sept. 15-17, Victoria
When this popular contemporary festival took four years off, the local landscape sure looked different. There’s an intangible that only Rifflandia can provide, as evidenced by the reception for its triumphant return last year — the city was beside itself with excitement. The upcoming lineup doesn’t include artists like Lorde or Charli XCX, who headlined last year, but the collective impact of Iggy Pop, Diplo, Suicidal Tendencies, Paris Hilton, Salt-N-Pepa — all of whom have never performed in Victoria — is not far off the pace. Add in Mavis Staples, Herbie Hancock, Run the Jewels and Stephen Marley and you’ve got a season-closing event with some serious oomph.