Garden Bros. Circus denies safety concerns after show shut down

Manitoba parents are demanding refunds after a touring circus set up at the Red River Exhibition grounds was shut down amid complaints of possible safety hazards.

Parents say they are asking for refunds, calling the show 'a disaster'

Two performers for Garden Bros. Circus. (Garden Bros.)

Manitoba parents are demanding refunds after a touring circus set up at the Red River Exhibition grounds was shut down this weekend amid complaints of possible safety hazards.

The Garden Bros. touring circus cancelled its remaining shows after inspectors refused to declare the event's tent safe on Saturday.

Audience members complained of unsafe conditions, including an apparent near miss when a safety net snapped. One performer fell off his horse into the crowd during a show.

La Broquerie mother Nancy Martens called the entire event "a disaster."

"The tent was really small. I didn't see the tear in it yet, but I noticed it was really small. And there was a lineup all the way to the end of the parking lot. When I got there, there were people coming out saying the show has sold out and they left. But they were still trying to sell tickets, but there was [not enough] seating."

Once inside, Martens said the floors were mostly mud and puddles and by the time she got to her seat, her feet were soaked. The bleachers were packed and seating was hard to come by, she said, adding to get to her bleacher, she had to climb over a rolled-up tarp. 

"So I sat down, and I was looking at the tent, and I noticed that it was ripped in some places, down in a bunch of other places, and I figured maybe this was from the Friday storm that happened. Maybe this was the best that they could fix it? Well, it was worse than what I had originally thought it was."

But I didn't feel very safe, knowing that the tent could come down on me at any moment.- Nancy Martens

The muddy floors and ripped tent led to accidents for the performers, putting them and audience members in danger, said Martens.

"They did this human slingshot.… They did one jump onto the net which was attached to the roof of the tent, and then they did a second jump. And with the second jump, the string to hold up the net, it snapped. The [performer] almost fell into the audience below him."

A performer also fell off his horse into the audience, knocking people over, Martens said.

"We stayed all the way to the end in hopes that it would get better," said Martens. "But I didn't feel very safe, knowing that the tent could come down on me at any moment."

Many families left halfway through the show, she said.

Martens said she tried to ask for a refund on the company's Facebook page, but was blocked after asking. The company responded to CBC through Facebook's Messenger app and confirmed people were blocked from the page.

"When [people] feel like they will go on and post lies use foul language or call us names they will be banned and deleted," the manager replied.

Numerous people posted on social media over the weekend, echoing Martens' concerns.

A rip in the tent at the Garden Bros. Circus Saturday. (Jen Ham/Facebook)

Circus responds

Circus spokesman Dick Garden said the Friday performances were cancelled due to the storm that hit the area, and said the tent was damaged by wind and hail. People with tickets to those performances were encouraged to come back on Saturday or Sunday to have their tickets honoured, leading to large crowds and annoyed customers.

Garden confirmed the Saturday evening performance and Sunday performances were cancelled after safety inspections, but said it wasn't because the tent was unsafe.

"We believe [an annoyed customer] called 911, which is the fire department who came down, and they didn't deem it to be safe or unsafe, they didn't deem it to be anything, actually, they just said they're not going to put their name on it to say that it is safe."

Local building inspectors also wouldn't say the tent was safe or unsafe, and Garden said the company was caught in the middle, so they cancelled the remaining performances.

The city of Winnipeg confirmed firefighters were called to the grounds Saturday just before 4:30 p.m.

"Due to safety concerns regarding the integrity of the damaged circus tent, and after careful consideration and exhausting all other options, WFPS instructed the owners of the circus to shut down operations until a qualified inspector could assess the damage, and confirm structural integrity of the tent," said a city spokesperson.

I do not know anything about any safety net that was snapped, anything like that, and I was [there] the entire time.- Dick Garden

A performer was injured at an afternoon show but it had nothing to do with the condition of the tent, said Garden.

"A horse was racing around the ring, that's what the [horse] riders do. And they do tricks which are phenomenal. While the horse is going, they're bouncing on and off the horse, and when they jump back on the horse, when it's going this speed around, he went right over and landed mostly on the ring curb, but you can say at the feet of the audience at least.

"I do not know anything about any safety net that was snapped, anything like that, and I was [there] the entire time."

The horse performer was taken to hospital and released Sunday morning. No one in the audience was hurt, he said.

Garden said anyone asking for a refund will be granted one, but those who wish to wait can have their tickets honoured when the company returns, likely at the end of October. 

In the meantime, the company is preparing to set up for a show Monday at Brandon's Keystone Centre.

The centre is not concerned about problems with the show because the circus will be indoors, Keystone general manager Jeff Schumacher said. 

Tickets purchased at the Winnipeg show can be exchanged for the Brandon show, he added.

CBC reached out to the Red River Ex for comment but no one was immediately available.


Elisha Dacey


Elisha Dacey was a journalist with CBC Manitoba. She is the former managing editor of Metro Winnipeg and her work has been seen in newspapers from coast to coast.