For some reason they asked me to be the keynote speaker on National Child Day. Senators Jim Munson, Terry Mercer and Ethel Cochrane wanted me to offer words of wisdom and encouragement to the 300 or so children between the ages of 10 and 14 from the Ottawa region who assembled in the plush, red chamber that day.
They hoped that I would roam around the floor of Canada’s Upper House of Parliament and speak to each child as an individual to get across a message that was based loosely on striving for success.
“Why me?” I asked Senator Cochrane upon my arrival. “Because you’re on TV!” she said. “And because you are someone they recognize and also because you’ve been to the Olympics.”
It was intriguing to know that someone like me who makes his living as a storyteller could possibly be worth listening to on a day like this. It was humbling to say the least.
“Hey, you’re the guy on the CBC Sports,” said one young girl wearing a head covering in the second row of the chamber. “Where are you from?” I responded by instinct.
“I’m from here but originally from Iraq,” she smiled.
Before I spoke we listened to a University of Ottawa student who was working as a Senate of Canada Page, sing the national anthem. There were Inuit throat singers and a French-Canadian folk quartet. A pre-teen named Aurora, sang Billy Joel’s Piano Man while accompanied by her father on guitar. The Master of Ceremonies was a little kid named Michel Naubert, who handled the proceedings beautifully.
“This is a day about inclusion,” Michel remarked, revealing a sensibility well beyond his years.
Canadian Olympians Kristin Gauthier and Angus Mortimer, who had paddled kayaks this past summer in Beijing, held the school children enraptured as they related the power of their dreams.
Then we were all inspired as a youngster named Anthony Curkeet-Green, who had overcome autism, read a speech to the group and received an award from Senator Cochrane.
Finally, when it was my turn to address the group I could think of only one thing. Anything is possible in this country when you have your health and are blessed with youth.
I drew on my recent Olympic experience in Beijing and related the tales of the three Canadian gold medals.
There was Carol Huynh, the daughter of Vietnamese refugees sponsored by the United Church of Hazelton B.C., who wrestled her way to the top. She defeated a heavily-favoured world champion from Japan along the way.
The men’s rowing eight had two cancer survivors in the crew. Brian Price had overcome childhood leukemia and Dominic Seiterle had beaten thyroid cancer. They had courage aboard when they combined with the others to redeem a loss four years earlier in Athens and claim the golden victory.
Finally, I told them about Eric Lamaze the champion of the show jumping event. The child of a drug addicted mother from the mean streets of Montreal, Lamaze had himself been banished from two previous Olympics because of problems with substance abuse. But there is forgiveness in Canada and Lamaze made good on his last, best chance to win a gold medal.
Anything is possible in the most advantaged country in the world. It is something that these children should never take for granted because the magic of sport and play are not readily available to others like them who live in much less fortunate parts of the world.
As I said this, I couldn’t help speaking directly to the young girl from Iraq who I had met earlier. Together we knew that in the country of her birth, this luxury could not be afforded to someone like her.
Then to close the day we listened to Becka Dehann sing Somewhere, Over the Rainbow from the movie The Wizard of Oz. Becka has been blind since birth but she played the piano so sweetly and sang like a bird only dreaming of the words and images that flowed from her mouth.
It brought all of us to our feet and tears to our eyes in the Senate Chamber on National Child Day. As I looked at the children in the crowd and the elders who acted as our hosts, I thought of one thing.
When you are young in Canada, anything is possible.
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