For anyone involved with the Provincial Exhibition of Manitoba over the last few decades, it’s likely hard to imagine the organization without Kathy Cleaver.
Cleaver’s name has been a consistent presence within the committees of the Provincial Exhibition of Manitoba, the organization that brings three major Brandon ag fairs to fruition year after year. From the exhibition’s horse shows, to rodeo, to a rotation of roles on the executive itself, Cleaver has been an exhibitor, a competitor, a volunteer and a leader for the organization.
Now, Cleaver’s long history has put her in the national spotlight. Cleaver is the latest name to be added to the CAFE Roll of Honour, announced every year in recognition of the fair industry’s extraordinary volunteers, leaders and organizations. The Canadian Association of Fairs and Exhibitions (CAFE) named Cleaver to the award Nov. 12.
It’s been a tough year for the Provincial Exhibition of Manitoba, but it got a bit of good news this month, with the announcement that one of its executive had been singled out for a national award.
“She’s definitely put in the time and effort and is a great friend, a great ally,” exhibition president Greg Crisanti said.
“Kathy has been right up through the ranks in our organization from president to vice-president to past president and currently is acting as my vice-president right now,” he added.
From city to saddle
Although Cleaver started out life as a city girl, graduating high school in Winnipeg, her first ties with the fair and rodeo industry started young. Her uncle, the operator of a PMU farm, was also a rodeo stock contractor, and Cleaver’s summer visits as a teenager helped expose her to the rodeos she would later compete in as an adult.
“As kids, maybe 16, 15, 14, we would go along just to help chase horses or be part of the crew,” she said.
Moving to Brandon after high school, Cleaver bought a horse of her own and started to compete on the Manitoba Rodeo Cowboys Association (MRCA) circuit, eventually taking a seat on that association’s board.
It was that experience that brought her to the Provincial Exhibition of Manitoba. Although Cleaver had participated in the exhibition’s horse shows, she was also among the names to bring the Manitoba Finals Rodeo — now a staple of Ag Ex every fall — to the provincial exhibition.
“I was asked to be on the Ag Ex committee for rodeo and help get that co-ordinated,” she said. “I was there as an MRCA board member in 1978 when we put the first finals on at the Keystone Centre in conjunction with the Provincial Exhibition.”
At the time, she recalled, the exhibition hoped that adding the rodeo component would help bolster its fall event.
Over the next decades, Cleaver served as a volunteer for the exhibition’s horse show and co-ordinator for barrel racing. In 2005, Cleaver officially joined the ranks at the exhibition, eventually chairing the horse show committee for the Royal Manitoba Winter Fair, helping plan and run the Manitoba Summer Fair, and representing the exhibition on the Keystone Centre board of directors, on top of her tours as vice-president, president and past president of the exhibition as a whole.
In 2009, Cleaver threw her efforts behind Restoring the Glory, the exhibition’s project to renovate the iconic Dome Building on the Keystone Centre grounds. The building, one of the last remnants of the 1913 Dominion Exhibition, had fallen into significant disrepair.
“It took 10 years,” she said. “And in that 10 years people came and went and there were two or three of us who stayed on the committee right through the whole process.”
The renovated building officially reopened its doors in 2018 and now holds offices of the Provincial Exhibition of Manitoba, event spaces and opportunities for ag education.
“I’ve always been proud of what the Provincial Exhibition puts back into the city of Brandon — economic impact and grassroots things, the education that it puts for urban kids,” Cleaver said. “I think we’ve got stronger at that, realizing that these urban kids need some real experiences.”
The exhibition has commonly contributed to expansions at the Keystone Centre, a main hub for events in the city, she also noted.
Helping to steer
Now returned to her previous role as exhibition vice-president, Cleaver has spent the last months helping the organization navigate the new waters of COVID-19.
“She’s just been a great mentor for me as president,” Crisanti said. “Having her right there, we talk all the time — text, phone calls, numerous meetings throughout the week, especially during this pandemic. Her knowledge and background of our organization has been amazing and I don’t know how we could get by without Kathy and her volunteer hours that she puts in.”
Cleaver’s national award is a piece of good news amid what might be one of the toughest years for the Provincial Exhibition of Manitoba. All three of the organization’s fairs had to be cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns, leaving the organization to scramble for smaller events to make up the financial shortfall.
“I really am honoured by this award, to be honoured in this crowd nationally is an honour,” she said. “The fair association, it is a lot of very hard-working people who work at their own local fairs all across Canada, putting countless hours, years and years, their whole lives in small towns putting fairs on… and Brandon, we do a good job here at all of our fairs.”