One of my favourite spots in Toronto is the Toronto Islands, that lovely patch of land right in front of downtown Toronto, separated by just a sliver of water. So close, yet so far from the city’s hustle and bustle. One of the biggest events on the Islands is the Toronto Dragonboat Festival, a family event organized by the Toronto Chinese Business Association. In addition to being a great entertainment event, the Dragonboat Festival is also a big fundraiser for the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, so it’s not just fun, it’s also for a good cause.
So two days ago I headed off down to the waterfront and took the ferry across to Centre Island. At 10 am when I left things were still fairly quiet and the line-ups hadn’t started yet. People with bicycles, strollers, coolers on wheels, all equipped for a full day on the Island, were making the trek across the bay to enjoy the excitement of the Dragonboat Race and to bask in the serenity of this island sanctuary.
The ride on the ferry affords absolutely the best view of Toronto’s skyline and at $6 return it is one of the most affordable sight-seeing options in Toronto. All the skyscrapers, the CN Tower, the round shell of the Skydome (now called the Rogers Centre) and the outline of the historic Royal York Hotel come into focus when you look back at the city. Toronto’s skyline is one of the most recognizable images in the world.
After a fifteen minute ride I set foot at the ferry dock on Centre Island and started walking towards the so-called Alan A. Lamport Regatta Course, a stretch of water frequently used for rowing events of different kinds. People had already set themselves up all over the lawn, ready for a picnic. Onlookers were following the races. A food court was set up where various vendors sold different types of Oriental delicacies and the Multicultural Village provided cultural displays, arts and crafts demonstrations, as well as various activities for children. One of the stands had an amazing assortment of folded paper crafts including some beautiful decorative dragonboats. The lady at the stand told me it takes her a whole day to craft some of these masterpieces.
A real dragon boat actually is a long and narrow boat, powered by paddlers, and the boat is usually adorned by decorative Chinese dragon heads and tails. Usually a dragon boat will have a crew of about 22 people, with one drummer or caller facing the paddlers, and one steerer at the rear of the boat. Dragon boats are thought to have come into existence more than 2500 years ago in south central China and have a long history in Chinese rituals and celebrations.
The races had already started at about 8 am Saturday morning. Dragon boat racers were coming down the water channel, 6 boats at a time, in the qualifying heats for the finals. This year there were about 6,000 paddlers competing over two days. About 200 teams participated in more than 100 races over this past weekend and teams came from all walks of life: banks, community groups, colleges, universities and other educational institutions, hospitals, technology and pharmaceutical companies and many more.
I strolled past the grandstand and past Centreville, Toronto Islands’ amusement park, over the bridge to the other side of the race course with the intent to connect with some dragon boat teams. The first team I ran into was a group of high school principals and vice principals that get together every year to participate in the race and raise some funds for breast cancer. These educators were a very welcoming and enthusiastic bunch, and started chatting with me. Their coach Glen gave me further background about their training routine. He explained that around February the whole team goes out to public swimming pools and starts stationary paddling. Then around April they actually get into the water near Ontario Place and train twice a week. Some teams train as many as five or even eight times a week. Glen and his friends indicated that dragonboating is a supreme stress buster, providing welcome relief from the pressures of the classroom.
One of his team members indicated that I should definitely catch one of the most interesting teams in the race: a team of breast cancer survivors. So I started hunting in search of this team and I walked into the “Athlete’s Village” which had a variety of tents set up for the convenience of the athletes.
Finally I found the team, “Dragons Abreast”, a group of women ranging in age between 35 and 75, who had all survived breast cancer. All were dressed in pink t-shirts to draw attention to the cause of breast cancer. I started talking to the group and found out that some of the group’s members have travelled to various destinations all across the world to promote the cause of breast cancer awareness. Some of them have recently travelled to Capetown, South Africa, and this year a number of them are participating in an international dragonboat race in Singapore.
Dianne, their media coordinator, explained that they race to promote awareness among younger women to participate in early breast cancer detection programs. She added that in the past many women were told to avoid strenuous upper body exercise after breast cancer surgery. The paddlers at Dragons Abreast on the other hand firmly believe that the exercise involved in dragonboating actually has significant health benefits, both physical and psychological.
One of the team members, a lady by the name of Pam, had recently participated in an initiative called UpKili: an event where 30 breast cancer survivors and their friends climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to raise funds for Breast Cancer Research. In total more than US$120,000 was raised. Pam told me that she ended up having an accident during the climb and had to be rescued and taken down by a team of sherpas. Nevertheless this was one of the most exciting events in her life time, being part of this unique initiative for this great cause. And despite her injury she ended up taking part in a safari even after the climb was finished. I was really happy to have connected with this group of courageous women who had overcome so much and are now taking their inspiring message to audiences across the world.
The official opening ceremony was going to be held at noon so I raced back into the main festival area. A group of politicians and dignitaries was assembled on the stage and after a number of speeches and welcoming remarks by the President of the Toronto Chinese Business Association, the ribbon cutting ceremony was held. A performance of the Lion Dance and the Eye-Dotting Ceremony of the Lions provided an authentic Chinese cultural flavour to this event. This was followed up by the Waist Drum Dance, organized and performed by the Chinese Professional Women Association of Canada.
I then strolled the grounds and by this time the food court was quite busy. Every special event has its special characters and just after the opening ceremony I saw this group of people strolling determinedly across the lawn, obviously a dragon boat team that had just finished their race. Their leader was pulling an imitation version of a multi-functional dragon boat that was spewing smoke, blowing soap bubbles and blaring Michael Jackson dance tunes through the built-in stereo system. The group was marching at a pretty fast clip and I had a hard time trying to keep up with them and taking pictures at the same time. Finally they settled in the shade by the water and I asked one of the team members what this was all about. He explained that his team was called “Kindred Spirits” and that they represented the Kinsmen in Bolton. They had indeed finished their last race of the day and were now ready to relax and celebrate, and their special miniature dragon boat was a symbol of their determination to have a great party.
The colourful characters kept coming. I ran into two bagpipers from the Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner’s Own “Pipes and Drums”, a group of uniformed and civilian volunteers, who make appearances as ambassadors for the O.P.P. all throughout Ontario. These two gentlemen were just enjoying a pizza when I came up to them and asked them about their upcoming performance. They said they would be performing at about 1 pm, “somewhere in the shade”. Both of them were dressed up in full Scottish regalia, kilt and all, wearing the colours of the Ontario tartan.
Of course I also had to ask them the key question that is burning on everybody’s lips when they encounter a Scottish bagpiper. The officer kindly responded and said that the answer totally depends on the question:
– If the question is “What is worn under the kilt?”, the answer is “nothing is worn under the kilt, everything is in great working order”.
– If the question is “What are you wearing under the kilt?”, the appropriate answer is “socks and shoes”.
That meant my curiosity remained unsatisfied, but I got a chuckle out of the answers which no doubt must have been given dozens of times before to deflect nosy queries. I only had about another hour on the island before I had to head back to the city, so I put on my inline skates and started gliding southwards through the gardens on Toronto Island which feature a fountain, several flower beds and reflecting ponds. South of there are locker rooms, the Island Bicycle Rental building as well as the Island Pier. West of this area is Manitou Beach, a sandy haven for avid sun worshippers. Further west from there is Hanlan’s Point, Toronto’s only clothing optional beach.
I had to get back to the mainland, so I started rollerblading in the other direction, eastwards towards Ward’s Island. Along the way I found numerous spots with canals, inlets and sailboats set against the backdrop of the city, indeed some of the best places to take in Toronto’s skyline in perfect serenity. Ward’s Island itself houses a community of permanent residents, many of them artists.
I ran into one of these talented folks, who was fabric painting on t-shirts in the middle of the lawn. Christopher Pinheiro is a Trinidadian-born multi-disciplinarian artist. His description on the Toronto Islands website lists him as “actor, dancer, model, masquerader, soup-chef and textstylist”. We had a brief chat about his fabric art as he was just painting a red maple leaf which would later be adorned by yellow and blue sections. Christopher is obviously an important member of the Toronto Islands artist community.
At 2:15 I caught the ferry back to the mainland from Wards Island together with probably another 20 or 30 travellers. Arrival on the other side was a different story: the ferry docks and the public area outside the ferry buildings were completely full with hundreds of people, lining up all the way out to Front Street. I guess everyone wanted to catch a piece of the Toronto Islands on this gorgeous day…