November 12, 2019

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Tough act to follow

Renowned country music festival's late co-founder and former mayor Eric Irwin was the driving force behind Dauphin's transformation from 'regressive' community to thriving city

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/6/2018 (501 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/6/2018 (501 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

DAUPHIN — The music portion of the 29th edition of Dauphin's Countryfest is still a day away and already a line of RVs has rolled up to the site, waiting to get the party started.

It's just after noon Wednesday, and in a little more than an hour the gates will open to the campground. It won't be long before the convoy along Highway 5 extends nearly halfway from the Selo Ukraina Heritage and Festival site to Dauphin, 10 kilometres north.

On the other side of the gate, the grounds are abuzz with pre-festival energy: volunteers and Countryfest board members and directors zip around on all-terrain vehicles yelling into their radios attempting to locate this person or that set of keys; food trucks are beginning to set up; and backstage, the rigging for the lights is being installed on the massive main stage.

The main stage at Dauphin's Countryfest.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The main stage at Dauphin's Countryfest.

It's crunch time, but everyone is in good spirits. It seems to be business as usual, even though a Countryfest fixture is missing.

Eric Irwin, one of the festival's founders and its president for three decades, died Nov. 24 at the age of 62 while he was on vacation with his family in Florida.

Irwin's death sent shock waves through the country-music community well beyond Manitoba's borders. Friends and family received condolences from musicians, managers and industry folks from all parts of North America, particularly Nashville, where he and his festival team had fostered relationships for decades.

Eric Irwin at the 2017 Dauphin's Countryfest lineup announcement.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Eric Irwin at the 2017 Dauphin's Countryfest lineup announcement.

Irwin, a practising lawyer, was also president of the Co-op board and he held numerous other titles and had many roles in the community.

And he'd been mayor since 2010. His title should have been, simply, Mr. Dauphin.

Countryfest began in 1990 as a way to raise funds to save the Selo Ukraina Heritage Site, which had fallen into disrepair. The first two editions lost money, but Year 3 finished in the black; the board was able to pay back loans that had accumulated, refinance the site and build a new hall.

In the years that followed, Countryfest became a not-for-profit organization and grew into one of the biggest country music festivals in the world; it is now considered the longest-running country festival in Canada.

The four-day festival draws thousands to the city of about 8,500 north of Riding Mountain National Park to take in performances from some of country music's biggest acts. Last year's festival drew daily attendance figures of 14,000.

Rob Woloschuk, general manager of Countryfest.

Rob Woloschuk, general manager of Countryfest.

"I’ve been booking the acts almost since the beginning, and when I first started out, it was tougher — a small-community, 'where is this?' kind of thing," says general manager Rob Woloschuk, convincing artists to play the festival for 28 of its 29-year existence.

"Of course the acts were smaller and cheaper then, too. But over the years, I make a call, or in a lot of cases the agents are calling me... they don’t question me anymore because they know; it’s a reputable place, they know what they get.".

A 2010 economic impact report found nearly $10 million was being pumped into the area over the four days from visitor spending and operational costs. And then there's the money the event gives back to the community.

"Countryfest is a huge driver in this community, and it has been for years and years," says Brad Collett, Dauphin's chief administrative officer.

"Many municipalities have huge grant requests from many organizations and they have to parse through and see who they have to give funds to. We don’t have a lot of requests because Countryfest gives a lot of money; I don’t want to say 'gives' — people from those organizations volunteer at Countryfest and get paid instead of just volunteering their time."

Brad Collett, CAO for City of Dauphin.

Brad Collett, CAO for City of Dauphin.

The festival relies on between 1,500 and 2,000 people to keep everything in order, from working the gate to slinging drinks to cleaning up garbage. Local groups and organizations — sports teams, band parents, the Rotary and Kinsmen clubs, among others — roll up their sleeves and, in return, Countryfest pays them. And for many, the money earned over the weekend covers their fundraising needs for the year; they don't need to do anything else.

Countryfest pays out approximately $150,000 annually to the "volunteer" workforce.

But a quick trip through Dauphin reveals the event's impact extends much further. Countryfest Community Cinema, paid for by the festival, is an obvious example. The board has also provided grants to help build an arena and a pool, and invested $3 million back into the festival site to improve seating, staging and the campgrounds.

"We’ve talked to other communities, and they wish they had something like Countryfest because it just contributes to so many organizations in the community, or projects," Collett says. "When you need a bit of funds to get a project over the hurdle, Countryfest will often step in there for you."

Woloschuk says investing in Dauphin was the plan from the beginning.

The Countryfest Community Cinema

The Countryfest Community Cinema

"We always said if the festival just breaks even, it’s considered a success. All of the organizations that volunteer, they get paid, so if they’re all paid and we break even, it’s been a success because they all benefit," he says.

"Anything over and above that, which we’ve had happen, (results in) bigger things like the arena in town and the theatre and all that sort of stuff."

And Mr. Dauphin was behind most, if not all, of it.


By all accounts, Eric Irwin was an incredibly well-read man who was passionate about improving the lives of Dauphin's citizens.

He and his wife, Kim, met in 1978 while he was attending law school at the University of Manitoba. A year later, they moved to Dauphin, where he set up his law practice. Shortly after, he joined the board of the Dauphin Consumer Co-op, which he remained a member of — and became the president of — until he died.

Irwin's physical legacy is seen all over Dauphin, including public art like this bronze statue.

Irwin's physical legacy is seen all over Dauphin, including public art like this bronze statue.

"He had very strong social beliefs and was a very strong co-operative guy, and Eric’s virtue was that he never let unfamiliarity stop him from trying to do something and infecting other people with his magnetism and his zeal, which led other people to try and do things," says Irwin's friend Chris Dzisiak, the Co-op board's vice-president.

"Dauphin is a very much better place since he came here."

As president of the Co-op, Irwin led several projects, including the recent construction of a $14-million grocery store and gas bar. Once on the verge of dissolution, the Co-op now employs upwards of 150 people, has $47 million in equity sitting in the bank and has had a hand in building car washes and purchasing new farm equipment.

"Eric was unconventional as a lawyer," says a laughing Joelle Robinson, who practised law at his firm and is a former Countryfest board member.

"There’s a story about — I wasn’t personally there that day but it was classic Eric — he would kick off his boots in the Queen’s Bench courtroom and do his entire case in his sock feet and he didn’t care. One other time, his courtroom vest, he sat back and his button went flying across the courtroom and he didn’t care." she says.

Joelle Robinson, a lawyer colleague of Irwin's.

Joelle Robinson, a lawyer colleague of Irwin's.

"He had absolutely no pretensions, which was fabulous. He was very good. He took it all very seriously but wanted to cut through the s—t all the time. Cut to the chase... he wanted to get it done, get it done right and make the client happy."

That personality trait served him well in politics, she says, adding it ruffled some feathers along the way.

Not everyone in town appreciated Irwin's high expectations and straight-shooter approach to management; and the "cast of characters" he had around him at each organization was often on diplomatic damage-control duty. But to his friends and family, that was all part of his charm — they knew his bluntness was only used as a way to achieve the best result in the shortest time, and that it was doled out with good intentions.

"He was somebody who was just very passionate about his community and about social justice, generally," says 35-year-old Sean, the eldest of Irwin's three children.

"He always wanted to make some improvement in people’s lives; these days those sentiments are more often clichéd than not, but for him, he was the walking talking embodiment of it. He did it all for those purposes and... other than the good feeling that it gave him and the pride in the work that he did, he didn’t really get that much else out of it. That was the kind of guy he was."

Despite his father's already-crammed schedule, Sean says Irwin was an active and involved parent — he spent time coaching hockey, flying out to see figure skating competitions, went on fishing trips and was always around when they needed him.

The entrance to Dauphin's Countryfest just outside of Dauphin.

The entrance to Dauphin's Countryfest just outside of Dauphin.

"It would be easy to jump to the potential conclusion that something had to give somewhere and maybe he didn’t get to spend enough time with his kids, but I’m not that old, and he and I almost every year would go on a fishing trip in June and we did that for, like, 20 years. I’m not old enough to claim to have done anything or known anything for 20 years quite yet," he says.

"He was a phenomenal parent; extremely invested in us and passionate about what we were doing, proud of what we were doing and accomplishing.

"We did have a sense of what he was doing, and it was one of these things where we were always very proud of what he did but it also sort of instilled in us this appreciation for trying to give back, trying to make some small difference, and in a very non-selfish, in a very non-self-aggrandizing way... it was one of those things that gave you a lot of pride and sort of set the bar for the way people should be, in a sense."

As mayor, Irwin's first act was simply to get a sign up on city hall that says: "Welcome to our Community," which is still in place above the front entrance.

The list of projects and accomplishments he racked up at city hall is almost endless; in fact, almost every block of Dauphin's downtown has at least one business or feature bearing Irwin's fingerprints: he led the renovations of city hall and the CN train station, the building of dog and skate parks and had a series of bronze statues depicting Dauphin's history and "guiding principles" placed around town. He had numerous meetings with CN about purchasing small pieces of company-owned land for community projects such as a park, a community-owned restaurant and recreation centre. He also decreased taxes and increased spending on roads, water and sewer without cutting funding for civic programs.

And, in 2020, Dauphin will host the Manitoba Summer Games — another Irwin project — which will lead to the development of cycling and cross-country ski trails near the Selo Ukraina/Countryfest site. There is an anticipated domino development effect that will involve other local organizations.

"The single most significant thing about Eric was his ability to come up with ideas and have people co-operate for a better community," says Dzisiak. "His ideas always had to have a strong economic sense, always had to get funded and it always started on paper first and then he’d start pulling triggers... If you don’t start, nothing happens."

Collett uses the word "visionary" when describing Irwin.

The renovated rail station in Dauphin.

The renovated rail station in Dauphin.

"I would also say he was a 'get-it-done' mayor which, I don’t want to say is rare, but... a 'get-it-done' mayor in terms of projects but also the citizenry, overall," Collett says. "His vision didn’t just include capital projects, it included how to go from A to B to make the community better overall... we have a lot of amenities a lot of communities our size don’t have, and he had a hand in almost all of them.

"His is a legacy of building, of building a community."

And the birth of Countryfest is considered by many as the catalyst to the wave of positive change in Dauphin.

"Eric changed the attitude in this town. It’s totally different," says Robinson, who has spent most of her life in Dauphin.

"Dauphin used to be known as a cheap place to die, and nobody in Dauphin wanted to do anything and it was all about the naysayers and why things couldn’t be done. "Dauphin's attitude about a lot of things was backwards, cheap, regressive. Eric really changed that. I really hope that his legacy is that people find a way to do stuff as opposed to finding a way not to do stuff.

"It’s a completely different vibe than it used to be and I think it started a lot with Countryfest. Eric is hugely missed. I don’t know... there’s a lot of great people here in town, involved people, but nobody will fill his shoes."


On Sunday, right before Paul Brandt takes the stage to close out the weekend, Countryfest will take a moment to pay tribute to Mr. Dauphin with the unveiling of a memorial plaque that will eventually be placed at the top of the hill, near the amphitheatre entrance.

It's one of the two final stamps on the Countryfest site bearing Irwin's imprint. The other? New washrooms.

One of his last acts as president was instructing Woloschuk to improve the facilities in the area near the amphitheatre.

The festival GM was wary, given the hefty price tag, but the boss insisted.

Bathroom signs at the Countryfest festival site.

Bathroom signs at the Countryfest festival site.

"Our people need nice bathrooms," Woloschuk says, imitating Irwin.

Woloschuk placed the order. A couple of weeks later, Irwin was gone.

Everything has been running as it always does leading up to opening day — from lineup announcements to site setup — but Woloschuk says it has been a different experience without Irwin.

"We’re so used to — at least myself, anyway — so used to just turning and asking him a question and getting his opinion. We’ve been doing it so long, I’ve been doing it so long with Eric, that became a norm for me," he says.

"What I’ve done a lot lately, especially because we’re so close to the festival, is go, ‘OK, what would Eric do? What would he say?" And sometimes you wouldn’t do that, but you certainly think about it, that’s for sure."

Irwin's family will take part in Sunday's tribute, and Sean expects it to be a bittersweet moment as his family, and the Countryfest family, reflect on his dad and what he means to Manitoba's country music community.

"It's one of these things where I think it’s going to be pretty emotional but also fills me with a lot of pride, and in its own way, a lot of happiness," he says.

"Every year we usually do this thing where you find yourself watching the show, especially near the end, and you look out over the crowd and see a greater population than the city of Dauphin all sitting in one amphitheatre singing along to the same music and it’s amazing how that brings us all together.

"People tend to see the festival as a party or something, all about having fun and all that, which obviously it is, but its ability to bring people together and to build community is pretty remarkable. A lot of people have been paying a lot of attention to dad and what he’s done and his contributions and so on, but he was kind of like the director of a symphony. If you don’t have all the wonderful musicians and all the people working so hard to come together to make beautiful music, then it’s just somebody waving a stick around in an empty room... he was somewhat of a product of his community."

Woloschuk is keeping a stiff upper lip.

"We’re forging ahead and we have a good group around us, basically the same group when Eric was here," he says.

"We’re just missing that guy at the front."

erin.lebar@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @NireRabel

Erin Lebar

Erin Lebar
Multimedia producer

Erin Lebar is a multimedia producer who spends most of her time writing music- and culture-related stories for the Arts & Life section. She also co-hosts the Winnipeg Free Press's weekly pop-culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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