The closing ceremony for a sports event that some say is one of the most inclusive in the world will take place Saturday (March 2) in Red Deer, Alberta
The Canada Games has featured 3600 athletes, managers and coaches, participating in 19 sports over the past two weeks along with a major arts and cultural festival.
As someone who spent 20 years as a sports journalist at CBC, I have known that since its inception in 1967, the games have played a role in developing some of Canada’s premier athletes.
Sidney Crosby, Hayley Wickenheiser, Eugenie Bouchard, Steve Nash, wheelchair basketball sensation Patrick Anderson and Canada’s most decorated winter Paralympian Brian McKeever are just a few of the star-studded alumni.
What I didn’t realize until I got closer to the organization, joining the Board recently, is that the games have quietly become known for something else.
Starting in 1995, the Canada Games introduced Para events for the top athletes in the nation with physical disabilities.
Then in 2003, the Games added Special Olympic events for the best athletes with intellectual disabilities.
The president and CEO of the Canada Games Council, Dave Patterson, says as a result of these moves, the Canada Games has raised the bar for inclusivity.
“To our knowledge, this is the only games in the world that combines Para, able bodied and Special Olympic athletes together. We think it’s unique and uniquely Canadian,” Patterson says.
At the last Canada Summer Games in Winnipeg in 2017, Patterson says one moment stood out to him with some of the Special Olympic athletes.
“They were standing on the podium getting their medals,” Patterson says.
“You look into the stands and see how emotional their parents are. But more importantly, you look out onto the deck and you see their (able bodied and Para) teammates. They are not cheering for them because they are inspired. They are cheering for them as teammates.”
Patterson who has spent his career helping lead different amateur sport organizations in Canada was moved.
“To our knowledge, this is the only games in the world that combines Para, able bodied and Special Olympic athletes together ON THE SAME TEAMS. We think it’s unique and uniquely Canadian,” Patterson says.
He adds, “those are the moments we want to inspire to happen day to day in schools and workplaces across the country.”
Patterson says spectators are often surprised that the Canada Games is inclusive in this way.
He adds many who attend the games are left in awe at the abilities they see especially from Special and Para athletes who they might be witnessing in action for the first time.
At last year’s Paralympics in PyeongChang, there were 17 Canada Games alumni participating including Liam Hickey who played Para Ice Hockey (formerly known as sledge hockey).
Hickey is a rare two sport athlete. He has also competed for Canada’s Wheelchair Basketball Team and represented PEI in that sport at the 2015 Canada Games in Prince George, BC.
Hickey loved the atmosphere at those games playing in front of hundreds of fans who were watching something unique.
He’s referring to the fact that wheelchair basketball takes the idea of inclusivity even further by allowing able bodied athletes to compete with Para athletes.
“We’ve seen that now since Canada Games has allowed that. I think it makes it special. There’s no other opportunity for that to happen,” Hickey says.
Dave Patterson says what he likes to say is that every two years, the Games show Canada the best version of itself.
“Some of those arbitrary categories of athletes (competing in separate games), we set those aside. An athlete is an athlete period. We’re able to live that at the Canada Games. Not just talk about it.