For 10 days at the tail end of summer, the small town of Saint-Tite, Que., swells as hundreds of thousands of visitors fill their boots with all things country.
Streets are closed, music blares and booths sell everything from churros to cowboy hats and horse tack as part of the Festival Western de Saint-Tite.
“You have to see it to believe it,” said Sylvain Bourgeois, the rodeo’s manager.
Looking over the stadium in the heart of the town located 65 kilometres north of Trois-Rivières, Que., Bourgeois says the event is steeped in tradition.
Celebrating its 55th edition this year, the festival welcomes athletes and spectators from across the world to what is seen as a marquee event.
“The atmosphere for them is like second to none,” said Bourgeois.
“I’ve travelled around North America, I’ve been to hundreds of thousands of rodeos over the years. There’s some really, really good rodeos, but St-Tite — it is different.”
It all started back in 1967, after a Quebec boot company, Boulet Boots, organized a successful promotional rodeo. Bourgeois says the town’s merchants wanted more.
“In ’68 the first festival was born. Then, 55 years later, we’re here,” said Bourgeois.
Since that first edition, he says the festival has grown, welcoming up to 600,000 people a year and ushering in new standards and values while still upholding its history.
Festival has ‘exploded in size’
B.J. Prince from Pontypool, Ont,. says some people underestimate Quebec’s connection to western culture.
He first started participating in 1995, competing in saddle bronc riding for 12 years. This year, he’s taking part in team roping events and says the festival just gets “better and better every year.”
“It’s exploded in size,” said Prince.
“From Canada, the U.S., Brazil — Australia this year — they come here in September for the chance to win about $25,000 in prize money in each of the events.”
Cody Mousseau from Alymer, Ont. says the event is “like no other.”
The competitor in the calf roping event has been attending the festival for over 12 years to celebrate “real American heritage.”
“It’s always been big, lots of people,” said Mousseau.
“The people and rodeo fans, I go all over and they’re hard to find like this.”
‘Horse culture has been ingrained here’
Prince says Saint-Tite’s “wild” atmosphere is often a surprise to athletes who come from Western Canada and the U.S.
“There’s a lot of tradition and culture in the equestrian atmosphere in Quebec. People don’t really know about it outside of Quebec but they have a lot of gymkhana [timed speed events], a lot of barrel racing events,” said Prince.
“Horse culture has been ingrained here for many many years so people really come out and support it and I think that energy that they bring really makes it fun for the cowboys that are coming here.”
Éric Arial says the individual rodeo events revolve around history.
This year, Arial provided some calves for the competition. The long-time attendee says the events are based on farm life and the traditional tasks cowboys have had to perform.
“All the events we see at the rodeo are all based on things that real cowboys did back in the day in the fields,” said Arial. “People had to bring in animals from the fields. They would vaccinate them and round them up.”
The events featured at the rodeo include barrel racing, the rescue race, the exchange race, the pony express and bareback riding. But it is events like saddle bronc riding, bull riding, tie-down roping and steer wrestling that have drawn criticism over the years.
In 2017, the death of a horse at the event renewed concerns from animal rights advocates with a report from a Université de Montréal professor accusing the festival of violating Quebec’s animal welfare laws.
“It’s always been one of our biggest concerns,” says Bourgeois.
“Like any sport, everything evolves and the rodeo is no different… We’re in constant evolution”
In 1996, he says he started working on a program called Vet Check — standards that ensure every horse gets a checkup with a veterinarian.
“We’re one of the leaders in that field in North America. We’re the only rodeo that drug tests all animals that participate in this event,” said Bourgeois.
“And we’re going to continue to do it.”
This spring, a working group from Quebec’s Agriculture Ministry (MAPAQ) recommended that competitors stop using lassos in rodeos.
In an emailed statement, Yohan Dallaire Boily, a spokesperson for MAPAQ, said the ministry supports rodeo stakeholders but formed a committee to determine codes of practice for rodeo events.
The ministry also hired a researcher to study and document the impacts on the calf industry.
Festival is ‘great’ for the town and Quebec athletes
As the rodeo continues, Bourgeois says he’s been focused on bringing more people to the town of about 3,000 for the festival that is often one of the last rodeos of the season.
When he first started in his role 28 years ago, Bourgeois says only about half of the contestants were from Quebec.
This year, the 214 Quebec competitors make up 75 per cent of the athletes, and more and more are qualifying for the Oklahoma City championship — sometimes referred to as the “Super Bowl of the rodeo.”
François Gignac, from Saint-Tite, has been attending the festival for 40-plus years and has watched in amazement as the festival has grown in popularity and size.
His father was the president of the board, and Gignac used to work at the festival. He always purchases four tickets for the second weekend event.
“The town is so small, to receive all these people from outside, it’s really great for us,” said Gignac.
“We don’t really understand why but it’s happening, I guess more and more people hear about it.”