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Not Amused...

We dreamed of it all summer long: sweet, salty, and deep friend junk food; games of chance; and for many people, midway rides. Canadians who wouldn’t dream of riding a bike without a helmet or getting in a canoe without a lifejacket risk life and limb to be thrown up and down and sideways on these mechanical contraptions.

With names like the Zipper, Helter-Skelter, and Polar Bear Express, these roller-coasters and other conveyances scream FUN. But sometimes, they just make you scream….

In Toronto, until the turn of the century, the CNE Midway was run by Conklin Shows, a company that also ran the scare-fest at the Calgary Stampede, the Pacific National Exhibition in Vancouver, and Ottawa’s annual fair, amongst others. The bowler-hatted clown logo stood for thrills, but as far as we knew, not many spills. If you didn’t live in one of the big cities, you probably went to the local fall fair, and Conklin provided rides for those events, too. Their team of “carnies” spread out across the country, travelling in trailers and running the rides up and down rural Canada.

These days, things have changed. Smaller, provincially based companies operate the travelling shows, staffed by students and imported labour, with minimal training and difficult working conditions. Safety standards vary from province to province, as do training requirements. Accident reporting is left to the individual attraction operators: there is no central body to collect accident statistics, so safety records are not readily available.

Research shows, however, that midway rides are only as safe as their operators. And when the operator is badly trained, or untrained, or not paying attention, then tragedy ensues.

Billy G Amusements, a Mississauga-based midway company, has been having a tough time lately, and it’s about to get tougher….

Hired to provide rides for a number of rural Ontario fairs this year and last year, Billy G had to pull out because they didn’t have the staff to run the rides. The company complained publicly about the Canadian government’s refusal to grant them permits to bring in cheaper, temporary labour from Mexico.

On its website, the company boasts about its employee hygiene. Staff must be clean-shaven and wear Billy G shirts and black pants, but despite the rule about shaving and the one about company shirts, Billy G Amusements doesn’t seem to train its staff very well, as four-year-old Anna VanWyck learned the hard way.

Anna went to the Owen Sound Fall Fair, expecting to have some fun with her brothers and cousins. The “Himalaya” ride shouldn’t have been too scary for a little child, but for her, it turned into a nightmare. She got into a car and sat down. It was about nine pm, too dark for sunglasses but according to witnesses, the young man who was responsible for rider safety on the Himalaya was wearing them. When he slammed the restraint bar into place, it caught Anna’s hand, severing the tip of her left index finger below the nail.

The first aid tent hadn’t been set up yet, so Anna was comforted by her family while they waited for the ambulance. Her severed finger was not retrieved, so there was no chance it could be reattached. She’s maimed for life.

Researching amusement park safety standards on the web, it would appear that Ontario has tougher regulations than most other provinces, but clearly the rules aren’t tough enough.

It took a little girl having her pony tail pulled off two years ago for Billy G to make people tuck their hair in….Let’s hope Anna’s losing her finger makes them stop their staff wearing sunglasses at night.

Interestingly, the company has a fairly anodyne web presence: it’s impossible to easily research their safety record, or indeed much about them at all. And this is true of midway companies in general. The TSSA, the body responsible for safety standards on midway rides, ski lifts, and other public contraptions, has no facility on its website for the public to check on midway operators. No record of accidents, and no record of complaints.

Local fairs are a way of building community and celebrating the change of the seasons. Nausea from too much cotton candy is an acceptable risk, losing a finger is not. Not to mention traumatizing a little girl, and all the other children who saw what happened, for life….

This one’s for you, Anna, with love from Uncle Devin xxx

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