By: Christopher Séguin
Let’s get one thing straight: volunteers are the lifeblood of the Canada Games.
Without them, our country’s largest multi-sport event wouldn’t even be possible, let alone capable of being the success that it is, and you don’t have to search far and wide to see why that’s true.
A short history lesson on the Canada Games reveals that over 100,000 people have volunteered their time to help out in all facets of this competition since the first Canada Games took place in Quebec City as part of this nation’s centennial celebration back in 1967.
The Niagara 2022 Canada Summer Games are proud to be carrying on that tradition. Between now and Games time next summer, close to 4,500 volunteers are expected to join the Meridian Volunteer Program, a group that will undoubtedly be critical to the success of the 2022 Games.
As of right now, over 300 planning volunteers have already enlisted in the program (with more of these roles currently available on Niagara 2022’s website), and thousands more will be given the chance to register in the Fall of 2021, when the volunteer registration portal will open and begin accepting applications specifically for Games-time volunteer roles.
In honour of the countless who have invested their time as a volunteer at this event, and the many more who will join the ranks next summer as part of Niagara 2022, I spoke with three former Canada Games volunteers to discover the remarkable experiences that they were lucky enough to have while working at the Games.
In the 27 previous times that the Canada Games have been held across the country, only four communities nationwide have had the distinct privilege of hosting this event more than once, a short list that includes Charlottetown, P.E.I.
That rare distinction for Charlottetown is what has allowed people like Megan Macdonald the opportunity to volunteer for this event twice, and with 28 years separating each occurrence, her two experiences with the Canada Games were triggered by very different circumstances.
Macdonald’s first kick at the can came in February and March of 1991 at the Canada Winter Games, when she was just a 14 year-old student. “I remember we were given time off from school, so we could go to the Games and experience them,” recalled the Charlottetown native, who’s younger brother and mother also volunteered in 1991. “A lot of people my age were also doing the same thing. My friends were volunteering too. It was very normal in that sense. I don’t remember if they just said ‘here’s your March Break’, but there was that sense that everyone just did that.”
As a student in the province’s French immersion program, Macdonald took advantage of this opportunity with the 1991 Games to put her French-language skills to the test. She ultimately wound up working at a welcome desk inside the Charlottetown Civic Centre (now called Eastlink Centre), a legacy facility that was built specifically for those Games ― and it didn't take long for her to see the value she got from volunteering for this event.
“For those who were doing French immersion, we saw an immediate benefit. You can volunteer at this event, you can meet all these people from across Canada and you can communicate with them,” said Macdonald. “It was another opportunity without having to leave, without having to do a two-week French immersion camp at Pointe-de-l'Église at Université Sainte-Anne in Nova Scotia, or to have to go to Quebec, or go to Ontario, or to an area where there is more French, like even next door in New Brunswick.
“This was something that was right here and it was big. It wasn’t just this little tiny event. There were a lot of people here, and there were opportunities to speak French."
That ability to speak fluently in both of Canada’s Official Languages would quickly become an asset for Macdonald over her professional career, and it’s also what ultimately brought her back into the fold, when the Canada Games returned to P.E.I. in 2009. While working on her PhD in theatre abroad in England at Queen Mary University of London, Macdonald came home to the Island during that summer, when she was recruited by a friend to help out with the 2009 Canada Summer Games.
“[My friend] said ‘well, we’re running the artist program that always goes alongside the Games,” said Macdonald, who eventually completed her PhD in Drama, Theatre and Performance in 2011. “They always bring in young artists from across the country as well, and they get to go to events, and immerse themselves and create art out of it, and we need mentors for them, and she asked if I would be willing to be a theatre mentor.
“And one of the artists was from Quebec, and she was predominantly French. Her English was fine for conversation, but talking technically about theatre and script writing, she was much more comfortable in French. So, they wanted somebody who spoke French and I ended up doing that.”
Although the Canada Games are often known for being a sporting competition, they truthfully are much bigger than that. Created as a nation-building event that seeks to celebrate Canada’s diverse sport, art, culture, and community, the Games always feature a massive cultural component, and PEI 2009 was no different — something that Macdonald was grateful to be a part of.
“I am so glad that I got to be involved from the artistic side because I was clearly never going to be an athlete of that caliber,” laughed Macdonald, who got to mentor a young Quebec artist named Julianne Racine during the two-week period of the 2009 Games. “I just remember it being really dynamic and really interesting, and being glad that I got to work with somebody who was a bit younger at that point, and seeing the difference in what she found interesting, what she was drawn to talk about or look at, and also I just walked back into my hometown after being gone for a very long time, and to talk to someone who had never been to Prince Edward Island, and see the world through her eyes. It was really interesting.”
Following those Games, Macdonald kept in touch periodically with Racine, who was originally from Saint-Denis-de-Brompton, Que., before their connection naturally fell off as the years went by. However, the bond they developed and the experience they shared in 2009 is still one that Macdonald remembers fondly.
“This is one of those events that is uplifting, that is eye-opening, that changes your perspective, and shifts how you think about the world because you meet people from all over the place and it doesn’t have to be because you are an athlete.”
It’s been nearly three decades since the Canada Games were held in Kamloops, B.C., and yet still to this day, for retired fishery officer Randy Nelson, there’s never been an event quite like it.
“The whole community here got behind [the Canada Games],” recalled Nelson, who grew up on a farm near Hodgeville, Saskatchewan before eventually moving out to British Columbia. “In the 30 years we have lived here, we’ve had the Brier, World Curling events, lots of high-level events, but that one seemed to energize and get the community going like nothing else I can think of.”
Nicknamed the Tournament Capital of Canada, Kamloops has developed a reputation for hosting a large number of sporting events. Specifically, it is estimated that the city holds annually about 100+ tournaments (prior to COVID-19, of course), and thus, has developed a strong volunteer base — something that motivated Nelson to become a part of thanks to his previous experiences as a competitive runner.
“With the racing I had done, I always recognized and thanked all the volunteers who helped organize these events. So, I thought I would offer to help, join in and be a volunteer for an event.
“I was an enforcement officer with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. So, I had some experience with how to deal with people,” laughed Nelson, who volunteered as the head of security at the wrestling venue for the 1993 Canada Games. “I also wanted to learn something about a sport I knew nothing about. That was part of my goal too. So, I chose [wrestling], because it was something I didn’t know much about and the hours fit well for me.”
Nelson’s decision to work at the wrestling venue is one that he would soon never forget, as that particular competition at the 1993 Canada Games produced one of the most memorable sporting moments of his lifetime.
“Newfoundland and Labrador get very few medals at the Games, but they’re the best people in Canada,” explained Nelson about our country’s easternmost province. “They had a wrestler, who was favoured to win a medal but he injured his ankle. He had crutches, his foot was in a boot cast, and it was just devastating to their whole team because this guy couldn’t wrestle.
“Now, there was another wrestler on the Newfoundland team that wasn’t considered a medal threat, but this kid managed to work his way through and get to the gold medal game. And I don’t know how many people from Newfoundland were in Kamloops, but they all showed up,” laughed Nelson when recounting the story of that gold medal match. “There had to be 150-200 people in there cheering for this kid. So, he’s going through the match and keeping it close, but he’s two points down and there’s seven seconds left and he is pinned. And this kid with his crutches, he’s running up-and-down the sidelines with one crutch, and he’s got a Newfoundland flag, waving it to the crowd, and it was just an amazing moment.
“Suddenly [the wrestler] somehow flips out of it and scores two points, and ties it. They then go into overtime and he wins it.
“This kid cheering his partner on, while on crutches, was amazing. You’d thought he’d won the gold medal when it was over. And then these 200 fans or whatever came pouring over the security rope, and people were looking at me and I just shrugged my shoulders. You aren’t going to stop that.”
That powerful moment remains one of just four gold-medal performances in Canada Summer Games history by an athlete or team from Newfoundland and Labrador, and much to Nelson’s surprise, it moved him in a way that still exceeds some of our country’s biggest sporting moments in history.
“I just never thought wrestling would excite me that much, and you just don’t know what’s going to happen, unless you are at an event,” recalled Nelson. “You know I watched, in 1972, Paul Henderson score during the Canada-Russia series while sitting on a gymnasium floor in Saskatchewan. I remember that moment. Of course, Crosby’s golden goal [in 2010], things like that. But this one to me was special. It’s something I remember more of than the other ones.”
The 1993 Canada Games also brought along with them new builds and improvements that changed the landscape of available sporting facilities for people in Kamloops, including Nelson’s children. Specifically, the city built a brand new sports complex called the Canada Games Aquatic Centre (CGAC), which featured a competitive long-course swimming pool that would soon become a second home to Nelson’s daughter Janna and her friends.
“That whole aquatic centre and the track beside were the centrepiece of these Canada Games, and it has been part of the community ever since,” declared Nelson, who’s daughter Janna competed at the CGAC for years as a AAA competitive swimmer. “It has gotten people into sport and given people opportunities that would have never had, had these Games never happened.
“So, what Kamloops did, they got a tremendous coach, a swimming coach [Ken MacKinnon] who came in, and he developed these kids. One of [my daughter’s] friends [Erin Gammel] went to the Commonwealth Games. And then, on the track side of things, Gary Reed was one of the best 400-metre runners. Dylan Amstrong of course, he got a bronze medal [at the Beijing Olympics], and he’s now a coach, drawing the best throwers in Canada, who are now working under him in Kamloops.
“That all came from the Canada Games.”
It’s safe to say Kamloops 1993 was a special event that still looms large in Nelson’s mind nearly 28 years later, and one that continues to provide benefits to the many who call Canada’s Tournament Capital home.
Paul Hébert’s journey to the 2019 Canada Winter Games in Red Deer, Alta., started well before he made the trip to Wild Rose Country in the dead of winter. His path to Canada’s largest multi-sport event truly began six years prior, all thanks to an email from his daughter that contained bits of information about another major multi-sport event that was set to arrive in Toronto in the coming years.
“I retired in 2013, and just before I retired, I got an email from my daughter, who worked for the provincial government, and there was a thing on her email signature about the Pan-Ams [in 2015]. So, I thought I’d go to the Pan Am website and check what’s what with them. So, basically I got hooked into that and I was with the [Pan Ams] for two years.
“And then, I basically became a Games gypsy.”
A ‘Games gypsy’ is a term that you might not be familiar with, unless you have lived and breathed this world of multi-sport events, but to put it simplistically, these individuals are a special breed of volunteers and/or workers who move from one major event to another — often travelling across a given country or the world in an attempt to garner these new experiences.
In Hébert’s case, his journey as a Games gypsy began with the Toronto 2015 Pan American and Parapan American Games, where he served as a National Olympic Committee (NOC) and National Paralympic Committee (NPC) assistant.
That’s when and where he caught the ‘Games bug’, and ever since then he’s been hooked.
Having developed this newfound interest, Hébert next joined up with the 2017 North American Indigenous Games (NAIG), which were also held in Toronto, a decision he made in effort to stay close to home. As a result of his choice to work with NAIG, he forgoed any kind of opportunity to volunteer with the Winnipeg 2017 Canada Summer Games, which were being held in his native province of Manitoba.
However, when presented with a second chance a couple of years later, Hébert wasn’t about to miss out on the opportunity to get involved with this uniquely Canadian event. So, he packed up his bag, took a flight to Calgary, and finally a bus to Red Deer to work as a Bilingual Information Resource volunteer for the 2019 Canada Winter Games.
“In Red Deer, people were like you came here from where to what,” exclaimed Hébert. “The people were giving me grief for travelling all that way and so on. And then, when the kids were coming back from the Closing Ceremony, I said to them ‘see why you get hooked on these things’ and they said ‘yeah’. And then all the people were going ‘yeah, we’re going to have to go to Whitehorse to meet for the Arctic Winter Games next March.’”
Unfortunately, those plans to meet up at the Arctic Winter Games were ultimately impeded as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, much like many of the events that Hébert had anticipated working in 2020 and 2021. That included the biggest of his aspirations to date, a planned trip to Tokyo for the Summer Olympics and Paralympics, events that, despite still set to go this July and August, will not be welcoming international volunteers as has been customary with past Games.
However, it’s certainly not all doom and gloom for Hébert. Like many, he knows the return to sport and the days of going to events are drawing closer every day, and he remains excited about the prospect of reigniting his role as a Games gypsy.
“The memories of working with the other volunteers, meeting the athletes, and the people coming from different provinces. And being in the Athletes Village, you get weird things,” explained Hébert, when asked what he enjoyed most about his time at Red Deer 2019. “Like it was a Sunday night, an Ontario women’s team came by, and they just stopped dead, put some music on, and did a huge line dance performance.”
In less than 500 days from today, Hébert will be hoping to experience more of those spontaneous moments, or ‘weird things’ as he affectionately calls them, when he continues on his Games path with the Niagara 2022 Canada Summer Games.
The Ajax resident is already locked into his role with the 28th edition of the Canada Games as a planning volunteer, working specifically as the Official Languages Lead for the Athletes Village, a role that makes him responsible for overseeing the inclusion of both Official Languages at his designated venue.
And although he’s still got lots of work to do before his journey with Niagara 2022 concludes, Hébert is already looking ahead, like any Games gypsy would.
“It’s another stage in the journey. I already got my name down for the Canada Games in 2023.”
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