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A bevy of white swans makes their annual walk from their winter home to the Avon River during the Stratford Swan Parade in Stratford, Ont., April 7, 2019.

GEOFF ROBINS/The Globe and Mail

If they had any idea their celebrity had waned, the swans weren’t showing it.

Instead, they jostled for prime position by the gate, bobbing up and down and grunting anxiously. As soon as the bagpipers began to play – and after a moment of stunned silence as the door swung open – Nick and Lacey were the first out of the gate. Lacey, with her persimmon-coloured beak, led the parade strutting proudly past the cameraphone-wielding crowds.

“Oh, hi babies,” a woman cooed as they passed. “I’ve missed you guys.”

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In Stratford, Ont., about a two-hour drive west of Toronto, the annual swan parade has evolved into one of the small city’s most beloved events. Each year, the 20 swans make their annual pilgrimage from the city’s winter “swan house,” toward the Avon River to nest.

But this year’s edition, held on Sunday, was a dramatically scaled-back affair. What used to be a days-long event was reduced to a 10-minute parade.

Just months before the annual parade, the main organizer – Stratford’s tourism association – announced it was stepping back, citing a “change in mandate.” This year’s event would be left to the city and volunteers.

What used to be the site of the swan festival’s additional programming – where there used to be food trucks and jugglers and performers – this year was a boarded-up construction site: the future home of the new $100-million arts centre at the Stratford Festival, one of North America’s leading repertory theatre companies.

Anita Gaffney, the executive director of Stratford Festival, said that construction for the new theatre had already begun last spring, meaning the swans already lost their venue by last year’s parade. She said the theatre festival at that time provided alternate venues for swan events.

“I think that the really beautiful thing about Stratford is that it thrives in a symbiotic relationship with the theatre,” she said. “We’re so fortunate to have this theatre here, and the theatre is fortunate to have such a beautiful, supportive community.”

The reduced scale of the parade didn’t seem to matter to the swans.

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The birds made their way slowly toward the river, directly past the construction site, and trailed closely by local politicians.

“We’re a little disappointed,” said Rene Laukat, who drove in from Toronto for the event. She and her husband Gary Meier have been coming for the parade for years. In previous years, said Mr. Meier, the parade had taken on a “carnival-like atmosphere.”

But this year, as they were driving in, said Ms. Laukat, “‘We said, ‘What happened to the razzle dazzle?’"

Standing about 50 metres away was Elizabeth Cooper, who wore a swan-shaped hat on top of her head. A friend had helped to craft it out of a hard hat covered in white fur.

Ms. Cooper used to help organize the parade. “We used to have clowns, puppeteers, jugglers, party tents … ” she said, before trailing off. At its height, it would draw crowds of 5,000. Attendance at this year’s event appeared to fall far short of that.

When asked if the swan parade was the victim of Stratford’s theatre expansion, both Ms. Cooper and her husband Steve went quiet.

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“It does kind of dwarf everything else,” Mr. Cooper said.

Ms. Cooper quickly cut him off. “But it does bring in a lot of money.”

Others seemed happy at the smaller, “back-to-the-roots” event, especially given the rapid changes taking place in the community – the growth in tourism and the resulting gentrification.

“Three years ago,” said MJ Thomson, one of the organizers, “it was so busy, people could barely move.” Tourists were flocking from all over the region. Cars clogged up the main streets – something that ordinarily only happens during the theatre festival.

And despite her initial surprise at the stripped-down parade this year, Ms. Laukat, the woman who drove in from Toronto, said she thought the parade wound up being “lovely.” After all, she said, the parade is the first sign of spring.

As the birds edged closer to the river, an excited hush fell over the crowd. Blinking into the sun, the people watched as the birds lowered themselves one by one into the river.

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“There’s something touching about these birds, who have been inside all winter,” said Ms. Laukat. “They’re coming outside for the first time.”

Editor’s note: (April 9, 2019) An earlier version of this story said the Stratford, Ont. swan parade was scaled back this year because a theatre construction project had crowded out the annual march. In fact, the construction project on the parade site began last year, and the organizers were offered other venues. In addition, another major factor behind the more modest event was the decision of the organizer, the Stratford Tourism Alliance, to step back from additional programming such as the parade and its ancillary activities.

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