The little festival that did
For the Ottawa dragon boats that glide through the placid waters of the Rideau River each summer, the beginning was modest. The festival that attracts 190 teams, about 5,000 paddlers, more than 85,000 spectators and top entertainment acts began at a small meeting in Mont Tremblant, Que., in the fall of 1993.
When the small group of Hong Kong Canada Business Association directors discussed the idea in their annual retreat in the Laurentian Mountains, they had no drummers beating their drums to motivate them, nor thousands of fans that now cheer on the paddlers each year.
They had no idea that the suggestion by Gordon Huston, then manager of the Hong Kong Bank of Canada, to have a dragon boat festival similar to Toronto and Vancouver in Ottawa would one day turn out to become the largest in North America.
Frank Ling, who was the founding president of the Hong Kong Canada Business Association, agreed to take the idea forward. Ling, now 76, became chair of the festival and is credited as a founder along with Warren Creates and Mike Chambers who were present at the meeting.
It wasn’t until the next year that the festival saw the light of day: 28 teams, around 540 paddlers and about 200 spectators met at the Rideau Canoe Club on July 23, 1994.
The race course along the Rideau River was set to 640 metres, a distance chosen to replicate the international competition in Hong Kong. Sleek, long wooden dragon boats painted to look like the texture of a dragon’s skin with the beast’s head and tail at either end were rented from Toronto.
The boats sliced through the waters of the Rideau River, with each boat’s 20 paddlers striving in unison to be the first to reach the finish line.
“We went from zero teams, zero money, zero sponsors to having our first ever event,” recalls Creates who succeeded Ling as chair.
“And we broke even — we raised enough money to pull it off successfully.”
Ottawa became the third Canadian city to start the dragon boat racing festival that day. From a one-day event in 1994, the race has grown to become a four-day multicultural sports and arts festival billed as one of Ottawa’s top annual tourist attractions.
To accommodate the growing number of participants, the festival moved from its original site at the Rideau Canoe Club to Mooney’s Bay, on the other side of the Rideau River.
The races now end at Mooney’s Bay, starting 100, 200 and 500 metres upriver.
Dragon boat racing can trace its origins in Chinese culture back 2,400 years. It began as a fertility rite to ensure bountiful crops and ward off misfortune, with the dragon as the symbol of worship.
Ling recalls that the first day of the festival was fraught by bad weather. “It was thunderstorm, lightning,” he reminisces. “One of the boats even turned over, but we survived.”
Heather Jarrett, who has been a paddler and team leader with the festival since 1994, says the weather that day was the worst the dragon boat races have ever experienced. She recalls how two of her team members did not show up that day assuming that the races would be cancelled because of the bad weather.
“Their absence necessitated finding spare paddlers from among friends and family who had come to cheer us on — this established a precedent for the next few years, and some of the team’s fans became anxious about attending, for fear that they might end up wielding a paddle or drumming!”
In its early days, the festival was called the National Capital Dragon Boat Race Festival. It then became the Nortel Networks Dragon Boat Festival and is now called the Tim Horton’s Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival after its title sponsor.
Music and free concerts have been some of the festival’s most prominent attractions over the years, including Spirit of the West, David Usher, Steven Page, 54-40 and Bedouin Soundclash.
This year Sloan, Raine Maida, Born Ruffians, Sam Roberts Band, The Balconies, Great Lake Swimmers and Autumns will rock two stages.
There is a children’s section, as well as a Ferris wheel and carousel. On June 20, there will be a 20th anniversary gala on the beach with a Tiki theme, featuring festive music, fire dancers and area chefs with culinary samplings for guests.
“I think they have really found out how to get families involved,” says Michael Sulyha, a team leader and paddler who has been with the festival since 2006. “There are a lot of activities for children and big-name entertainment acts. It’s become much more attractive to not just people who want to come and watch the competition. There’s something for everybody over there.”
A fundraising component was introduced in 1996 and the festival has raised about $3 million in charity to date. More than 29 Ottawa charities have benefitted, including the CHEO Foundation, Ottawa Food Bank and the Rideau Valley Conservation Foundation.
According to Sandy Foote, the current chair of the Dragon Boat Foundation that manages the fundraising part of the festival, the event aims to raise $450,000 this year in charity.
Those participating in the festival come from all walks of life. Over the years, the festival has seen teams of teachers, media, bureaucrats, high-tech professionals, lawyers, police, people with disabilities and breast cancer survivors.
Some teams are made up only of family members — at times formed as a tribute to a family member they have lost — while others have a mix of family and friends. For some, the motivation is paddling for a cause, for others it’s good sport. Yet others see it as simply a way to get out there and have some fun.
Another one of the major components of the festival is the flower ceremony held by the breast cancer survivor teams.
During the ceremony, paddlers from the breast cancer survivor teams raise a pink flower above their heads, join hands with paddlers from the other boats and reflect on the lives that have been affected by breast cancer. They then toss the carnations into the water. The ceremony aims to honour all those who have passed away because of breast cancer, give hope to those who are battling the disease and celebrate those who have survived.
Ling is ecstatic by the festival’s growth over the years.
“It is a world-class event and the largest festival in the world in terms of attendance.”
The festival attracts teams and spectators from across Canada and the U.S. and has served as an inspiration to other such festivals in the world.
John Brooman, president of the Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival, says Israel’s festival, which began in 2012, traces its genesis back to Ottawa.
“Definitely, there are other festivals that will use Ottawa as a template to try to improve their own.”
Creates thinks the first day of the festival has had a role to play in its growth. In Chinese folklore, rain is seen as a symbol of good luck and he takes it as a sign.
“We got rained on that first day and we have been lucky ever since.”
Connect with Naureen Aqueel |firstname.lastname@example.org