Six Alberta students head to top debate competition at Oxford Union

Six Alberta students are off to the UK this week to represent Canada in a prestigious debate competition — Oxford Finals Day at Oxford Union — going up against top debaters from the UK, Western Europe, Singapore and the U.S.

Three of four teams in Canadian delegation from Calgary-area schools

Chelli Shapiro, left, and Zaki Lakhani, Grade 12 students from from Strathcona-Tweedsmuir school, will represent Canada at a top debate competition in the UK, the Oxford Finals. (Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School)

Six Alberta students are off to the UK this week to represent Canada in a prestigious debate competition — Oxford Finals Day at Oxford Union — going up against top debaters from the UK, Western Europe, Singapore and the U.S.

For the first time ever, three out of four teams in the Canadian delegation are from Alberta.

"I think one of the things I'm most excited about is to see how debaters from England actually debate,"  said Chelli Shapiro, 18, who, along with partner Zaki Lakhani, is from Strathcona-Tweedsmuir school in Okotoks. 

"I've had the opportunity to compete at national competitions and see how other incredible Canadian debaters debate, but to see the British style as well, I really hope will also inspire me and be something that I can bring back and share with the Calgary debate community."

It opens up your mind really to look on both sides of the issue.-Asher Nyhoff, Grade 12

The Oxford Union is a debating society in Oxford, England, which has hosted top speakers and debaters since the 1800s, including former U.S. presidents, Canadian and British prime ministers.

"I think debate is like a very stylistic thing, and it really differs depending on where you live and who you're influenced by," Shapiro said in a brief chat as she waited to hear Barack Obama speak at the Scotiabank Saddledome.

To qualify for the top spots, the Alberta students competed at Canadian Nationals, as well as in the provincial British Parliamentary Debate competition.

"So it's basically the height of our debating career," said Asher Nyhoff, who will compete with debate partner Kevin Lin. The two, both Grade 12 students at Webber Academy in Calgary, were ranked in the top spot in Alberta this year. "We're very excited."

Webber Academy students Asher Nyhoff, left, and debate partner Kevin Lin are heading to England for the Oxford Finals debate competition.

Nyhoff has been debating since Grade 6.

"I just instantly fell in love with debating," he told The Calgary Eyeopener.

"It was a competitive outlet, at the same time as kind of really sparking my interest in a lot of different things and in learning. I guess it was a it was a way to kind of legitimize arguing."

Kevin Lin says he started debating in Grade 9 as a way to get better at public speaking.

"We'd have dinner table debates. I wasn't very good," he said with a laugh. "I also was not very good at classroom presentations and talking in front of people. I wanted to be good. So debating was probably the first avenue into that, and ever since I just enjoyed it because I got to meet so many people, travel to so many places."

The Calgary duo is prepared to take the international stage.

"We know for sure we're going to compete against the UK's best, Ireland's best and Canada of course," Lin said. "We see that there's other international competitors as well. So presumably the Commonwealth nations like Singapore, India, Australia maybe."

Lin, who was also a youth recipient of Calgary's Immigrant of Distinction awards in 2018, says debate is as much about listening as it is about talking.

Just 15 minutes to prepare

"Our coach loves to say that there's a reason you're born of two ears and one mouth, because listening is more important. And through facing, you know, the top debaters a lot of them have maybe different accents. They talk very quickly. We have to listen very carefully."

The third Alberta team is from Western Canada High School in Calgary. 

The competitors will have just 15 minutes to prepare after they are given a topic and told which side of the debate they will argue. For Nyhoff and Lin, that's part of the fun.

"It opens up your mind really to look on both sides of the issue," Nyhoff said.

The Oxford Union student debate competition takes place Saturday.


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