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Some volunteers irked by Hillside Fesitval's vaccine mandate

'(Performers) want the people they come in contact with to be vaccinated. … They want to feel protected,' explains festival's executive director
20190712 Hillside Festival Day One KA 06
A crowd at the main stage on day one of Hillside Festival in 2019. Kenneth Armstrong/GuelphToday file photo

With about a month to go until Hillside Festival returns to in-person festivities, organizers of the three-day event are calling for more volunteers to help out. 

However, some people in the community are quick to point out they’d love to pitch in as they have in the past, but can’t because of a requirement that all volunteers be fully vaccinated against COVID.

“Everybody wants Hillside to be awesome, being it’s been so long (since it was held in person),” said Wayne Smythe, a longtime attendee and performer who’s not planning to take part because of the proof of full vaccination requirement. “They're creating division when they don’t need to.

“I’m slightly more than frustrated. I’m highly disappointed.”

There is no requirement for festival goers to be vaccinated.

Marie Zimmerman, Hillside’s executive director, said the vaccination requirement for volunteers was put in place at the behest of performers.

“The artists that we are showcasing this year have it in their contracts that they want a safer space,” she explained. “They want the people they come in contact with to be vaccinated. … They want to feel protected.”

For the most part, performers make their living playing at festivals and other in-person shows, she noted. If they were to contract COVID, that would hinder their ability to perform and potentially contribute to the virus’s spread.

“Caring for the community and protecting people is a very strong ethic for Hillside,” Zimmerman added.

Smythe, a musician who said he’s performed at the festival every year since 1994 and was slated to play this year as well, doesn’t feel that explanation holds water. He claims to know several performers who have made no such demand.

“We know all the artists are not vaccinated,” he added.

Noting most provincial vaccination requirements ended in March, Smythe organized a protest to be held outside the festival’s Woolwich Street office on Wednesday afternoon, seeking to have the requirement overturned.

“It’s a mess. We don’t understand why this is happening,” he said, adding some longtime volunteers “feel very hurt” and “targeted” by the mandate.

Several other community members reached out to GuelphToday to express their disappointment with the rule.

“It’s almost like this summer there’s going to be two types of festivals – vaccinated and unvaccinated – that’s what they’re creating,” commented Shane Philips. “Hillside’s never been about that.

“I wouldn’t want to force the community apart on this issue.”

Philips said he’s currently scheduled to perform as part of a collective of musicians honouring longtime CFRU radio host Nicky 'Dread' Taylor, who died earlier this year. However, due to the vaccination requirement, he said he’s undecided if he will participate.

Websites for several other festivals in the area, including the recent Guelph & District Multicultural Festival and the upcoming Riverfest in Elora, make no mention of a vaccination requirement for volunteers and/or performers.

Asked how she feels about the potential for some longtime volunteers being excluded as a result of the vaccination mandate, Zimmerman said: “They made a choice and the board had to make a choice as well. … We’re at the point where we’ll have to agree to disagree.”

The festival typically sees about 1,200 volunteers, which Zimmerman said it’s close to now, but more are needed as this time around due to “public health concerns.” That includes things such as ensuring hand sanitizer and face masks are available for patrons who choose to use them.

Hillside Festival runs July 22 to 24 on the island at Guelph Lake Conservation Area.

For more information, visit

Anyone interested in volunteering during the festival is asked to apply before the end of June, though the initial deadline was May 31.