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Toronto's diversity to make visiting Pan Am athletes feel at home

They may not be on home turf, but when visiting athletes from 40 countries look to the stands during Toronto's Pan Am and Parapan Am Games, they're likely to see their flags being waved by cheering Canadians celebrating their ethnic roots.

Visiting athletes from 40 countries will compete

They may not be on home turf, but when visiting athletes from 40 countries look to the stands during Toronto's Pan Am and Parapan Am Games, they're likely to see their flags being waved by cheering Canadians celebrating their ethnic roots.

The cultural diversity of Toronto and its surrounding areas is expected to be on full display next month as thousands of competitors from the Pan American countries take part in what's being billed as the largest multi-sport event ever held in Canada.

"I think the one great difference to the rest of the world is that we have a little bit of everywhere here that we love to celebrate in a proud and inclusive manner," says Giselle Cole, who will be flying the Canadian flag as well as the flag of Trinidad and Tobago, where she immigrated from years ago, during the Games.

"We're going to be able to celebrate Canada while at the same time welcoming and supporting our athletes from the Pan Americas."

Those organizing the Games have been collaborating with people like Cole to engage different diasporas in the events that will run alongside the sporting competitions. A number of performances, ethnic food pavilions and other cultural events are planned throughout the month of July and well into August.

Cole, a Paralympian who won gold for Canada in 1980, believes encouraging members of ethnic communities to embrace the Games will not only make visiting athletes feel at home, but also provides an opportunity for Canadians, particularly youth, to identify role models and reconnect with their heritage.

Maria Figueredo feels the same way.

That's why the York University professor whose family came to Canada from Uruguay launched a project called Poet Tree, which encourages people to submit original verses along with work from their favourite poet from a Pan American country. The project seeks to celebrate the sports and culture of each country and culminates in an installation at the Toronto University.

"I wanted to bring something from my field to the Pan Am Games and to get my students connected," she says.

Live poetry reading

As the Games approach, Figueredo is also helping organize a live poetry reading, reaching out to Latin American businesses to engage them in the Games and is helping with the planning of a Latin American pavilion.

Through it all, she says she's been impressed at how eager people are to tap into their heritage, and notes that the Games have also given members of the Latin American community — which in itself is large and varied — a common focal point.

"It creates an opportunity for unity that is difficult to achieve on such a large scale normally," she says. "The different waves of immigration create different networks and this allows us to all come together."

Those in charge of community outreach at the Games are all too aware of the importance of bringing people together.

They've been working on building relationships with ethnic communities, creating programming that can get residents involved and developing a community presence to let people know what the Games can offer.

To do that, they've consulted with consul generals from the Pan American countries, asked community leaders for their ideas and used local groups for their expertise.

"We wanted their voices at the table to help us shape our plans," says Zenia Wadhwani, director of community outreach with the Games. "You will see a real reflection of that diversity within the programming."

The end result of all that work, Wadhwani hopes, will be a Games experience with Toronto's mosaic of cultures reflected in everything from the spectators at the Games to the volunteers at every event.

"Those communities that are coming here to play, each and every one of them has a hometown cheering team here that's ready to cheer on Canada and cheer on those home countries," she said.

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