Nova Scotia

2020 Celtic Colours International Festival will be live streamed only

Plans for a traditional Celtic Colours festival had been in place, but COVID-19 sent organizers looking for an alternative.

COVID-19 meant festival organizers had to look for alternatives

The Celtic Colours International Festival will look different this year, with its online-only format. (Corey Katz Photography)

Concert venues, church halls and community centres on Cape Breton will be quieter this fall now that officials with the Celtic Colours International Festival have decided not to hold the usual slate of events, in the interest of public safety.

The nine-day festival, held across the island, will instead be a series of live-streamed performances due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"We thought it would be virtually impossible for us to stage the festival in the way that we normally do," said Mike MacSween, executive director of the festival.

"But we also were very concerned about the safety of everyone and making sure that nobody was put in a position where they got sick as a result of their work on behalf of the festival,"

Celtic Colours at Home will run Oct. 9-17. While not all the details have been ironed out yet, artistic director Dawn Beaton hopes they can feature local talent while still keeping the international component in place.

There will be live performances mixed with some pre-recorded elements.

Dawn Beaton, right, shown here with her sister Margie, is artistic director of the Celtic Colours International Festival. (

"We want to send a bit of a love letter to Cape Breton and showcase that we can prevail and to give people hope ultimately, but it'll be a live stream that will for the most part stay pretty true to the live element," said Beaton.

Plans for a traditional festival had been in place, but after much discussion with organizers, volunteers and artists, the decision to move to the online-only format was made. Beaton said they are still working on the programming.

"We're trying to ascertain the details, to decide how I can go about this, in terms of multiple households say for a band that all live independently of each other. How does that work ... to have them convene on stage when they're not under the same roof. So that's part of the equation that I have to figure out," said Beaton.

The organization is not anticipating a huge financial hit as its costs will be lower this year with the scaled-down event.

Mike MacSween is the executive director of Celtic Colours International Festival. (Emily Latimer/CBC)

MacSween said a large portion of the revenue comes from ticket sales. This year, there will be an option for those who are watching online to make a donation and branded merchandise will be for sale online.

"We are obviously having to change our budget significantly. We'll be trimming down the costs considerably to reflect the change with the reduction in our activities," said MacSween.

While some sponsors have stepped away for this year, festival board chair Bob MacEachern said the conversations with most have been positive. 

"When we reach out to, whether it's artists or sponsors, they're all coming back to us with, kind of, the same response ... 'We're here, we understand what you are going through, let's see what we can do to get through it together,'" said MacEachern.

He adds it's important to still develop a program that will bring some joy to people, even if it is from a distance. 

"We're all going through this together for the first time. It's not just an economic downturn in a country. This is a worldwide pandemic," MacEachern said.

'Can't be replaced,' says Destination Cape Breton CEO

Terry Smith, the CEO of Destination Cape Breton, said in 2019 Celtic Colours brought $18.7 million into the local economy.

"In terms of events, it is our masterpiece, it's the biggest thing that we would have and it just really can't be replaced," he said.

Smith said he hopes people do still make use of the outdoor activities that the island has to offer, such as hiking, boating, golf and kayaking.

The Boisdale Fire Hall and Boisdale Historical Society have been hosting events during Celtic Colours for over 20 years.
Hosting shows, historical walks and workshops helped raise money for the fire hall, but fire Chief Joe MacDonald said the social aspect to the festival is what will really be missed.

"The volunteers really enjoy it. It's a great time to show Boisdale as the community that it is and I think it's a chance for us to tip our hat to the world," said MacDonald.

Plans for next year

The Gaelic College in St. Anns is the host site for the festival. For up to two weeks in October, the college usually hosts musicians, staff and volunteers. Workshops, shows and the festival club keep the grounds crowded for the duration of Celtic Colours each year. This fall, the college will be quieter.

"Well, definitely, there's an impact. When you have your rooms filled and you're selling meals, you're making money. And it's an important time of year to be making money and your craft shops would be impacted as well without guests, tourists being around," said Rodney MacDonald, the college's CEO.

Organizers plan to be back next year for the 25th anniversary. Some events that were planned for this year may be moved to 2021, depending on artist availability.

About the Author

Jennifer Ludlow

Associate producer

Jennifer Ludlow is an associate producer and technical director for Mainstreet Cape Breton and also works as a reporter. All tips are welcome. Contact her at