It was a real thrill to be able to share the Six String Nation story at the 86th AGM of the Federated Co-operatives Ltd.
tonight in Saskatoon. Apart from the fact that that famous CO-OP logo is a persistent feature of the Canadian prairie landscape, I feel the FCL and the 6SN share a commitment to the idea that – especially in the Canadian context – we accomplish so much more when we work together. In most parts of Canada, that's not simply an ideological choice; rather, it is borne out of necessity in a place characterized by big challenges and small markets. And I was proud to remind the audience that a couple of antecedents to the western co-ops are reflected in Voyageur
's construction: the Doucet House
on the grounds of the Farmer's Bank of Rustico
PEI and the famed Hoito Finnish Restaurant
in Thunder Bay ON - run as a co-op since its founding in 1918.
As a complete aside, this was the smoothest large dinner service at one of these kinds of events I've ever seen. Every conference that tries to sit down and have staff deliver massive trays of salads and entrees to every table needs to try this way more
efficient system of sending people a few tables at a time to a special room with multiple rows of every course laid out for self service. Dinner was served in no time.
Anyway, amidst all this wonderful hospitality and fellow feeling, the presentation goes tremendously well. But the sweetest part of it is that one of the co-operative members from Uclulet BC, Christopher Robin Bird
, is the person who will play Voyageur
in the performance pocket at the end of the presentation. He has arrived in Saskatoon coming off a flu with a sore throat and all the rest of it. He had volunteered to be the player without knowing what guitar he'd be playing. When he found it would be Voyageur
he applied all his energy to doing a great performance on that stage. He had known about the project and couldn't believe this was his chance to actually play it. To the assembly he gave the gift of a couple of songs: one of his own composition and one by Stan Rogers
. Additionally, to me
he gave some other gifts from Uclulet – including a local cook book and a lovely found object: a glass ball Japanese fishing net float that had washed onto his local shores. Thanks for the music and the presents, Chris!
It was a long line up for portraits following the presentation. As always, Doug Nicholson
did an amazing job making everyone feel comfortable and getting some fantastic shots that I'll be posting just as soon as they're all processed. We especially need to thank our amazing portrait station volunteers Daniel Jungwirth
and Alexandra Stang
(from Macklin!) who really kept things ticking along and let me concentrate on signing books and talking to people.
Thanks so much to conference coordinator Donna Tetrault
, the rest of my Federated Co-operatives Ltd. hosts and all the members in attendance. Thanks also to TCU Place technical director Richard Heineke
and his team for making everything run so smoothly.
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and I had firmed up details of my presentations at the Macklin School about a month ago and it was clear I'd need to come in the day before in order to be ready for the first class of the morning. So I asked for a recommendation of a place to stay and she recommended the Canalta Hotel just across the provincial border in Provost AB (also crossing a timezone, as I later discovered!). Fine. I looked it up online and made an e-booking. About half an our after getting my confirmation I got another email from Canalta – this one a personal message from GM Leila Grobel
saying they'd seen my reservation come in and wondered if I might be free to do a presentation in Provost! How cool is that? Time was going to be tight as I had to get back to Saskatoon to get Doug from the airport and get checked in for tomorrow's presentation for the Federated Cooperatives AGM while accounting for that time change but we figured there'd be time to do a small gathering in a conference room on Saturday morning. If they provided robes at this hotel I could conceivably have wandered down and done it that way! Lucky for everyone involved there are no robes so I simply got dressed, went down and had a couple of complimentary hardboiled eggs and some coffee and got set up in the meeting room.
To be honest, I didn't know what to expect. I'd seen some colour photocopied posters around and they'd put 40 chairs in the small meeting room on the ground floor and were laying out some coffee and donuts in the lobby but there was no indication as to how many people might come out on a very cold and grey Saturday morning. As I was setting up the projector and sound, a guy in coveralls wandered past and asked if I played golf. His name was James McCrimmon
and he was on his way to a pipeline job in the area somewhere but quickly produced a little aluminum divot fixer and tee repair that he'd invented called the ReTee
. We talked about his business strategy for a while (which includes a possible appearance on the Dragon's Den - he's already done the audition) and then (since he'd shown me his) I offered to show him my invention. He wanted a picture with Voyageur
and he shed the coveralls in about 2 seconds for a more casual fleece look. As we were talking, my three musicians for the "performance pocket" came in: (pictured left to right) Cade Scheck, Karen Wagner
and Alissa McLaren
. We all ambled out to the lobby to greet people and by the time we all drifted back to the meeting room it was full. I can't say enough how much I love this experience of talking about this project to a room full of friendly and curious strangers and hearing (and having them hear) local folks bringing Voyageur
to life. It was a perfect way to spend the morning.
Thanks again to Leila and her staff (hey Jimmy
!) and to the Canalta Hotels
group for welcoming this opportunity. A very special thanks also to the Bodo Archaeological Society
who supported this event. Bodo is a community between Macklin and Provost and they host camps in the summer where young people both kids and adults can come and do a proper archaeological dig and get their hands dirty doing real science – check out the link!
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So, there were three presentations at the Macklin School today. The first you've read about – the new format I'm trying out on the K-6 students. In the afternoon it was the remainder of the school – grades 7-12. And the evening presentation – still in the school gym – was a small group of family members and friends from the school community.
The constant among the three was the appearance in the "performance pocket" of Katie Lauinger
and Kiera Heintz
. They sang together and traded off playing the guitar. They played versions of the same pop medley each time and what was really amazing was to see the way they grew into the performance over the course of the day. Although I tried to convince them to stand in the morning, they preferred to sit in chairs behind their music stand. That shyness extended to the microphones and they kept well back. Their voices got a bit lost in the mix – overpowered by the guitar and some of the occasional feedback that can creep in where you're too far off a hot mic and the room starts to articulate its own frequencies. For the second performance I tried to convince them to use a stool instead but they stuck to the chairs. However, they were on mic and they were much more sure of the vocals so it was a better performance. For the evening show, they trimmed their song a bit to accommodate the two other performers and I convinced them to stand instead of sit. We balanced the volume of the guitar a bit and the vocals were really strong and clear. And that improvement in performance all happened in one day. Imagine what they can do with some rehearsal time and a few more audiences!
The other performers were terrific as well: young Olivia Golden got things started. The guitar was about as big as her and yet she managed to hit her chords and not drop her guitar pick (I also hear she will get to brag at home that she pulled it off after her brother bowed out on the chance to play!); the more seasoned performer who closed things out was Don McIntyre – a very capable picking-style guitarist who performed an instrumental of his own composition. We ended up having a fascinating conversation before the show began. He's a guy who has got a lot of perspective and has scaled his work back a bit to spend more time with his family and his guitar – to the extent that he's been recording an album for eventual release. Until then, I'm glad we got to hear him in the Macklin school gym!
I thought my own performance hit a nice groove for this last show today as well but the most pleasing thing about the evening was the chance to just hang out and chat with people afterwards. I'm telling you, nothing would make me happier than to spend a whole lot more time visiting communities across the country and sharing this story. I'm certainly grateful for the times I do get these invitations and would welcome countless others.
For today, I'm especially grateful to Kelsie Valliere
and her colleagues at the Macklin Arts Council who put in so much work to make this such a great day. It was a memorable one for me and I hope for the students and folks in the community who joined us for the presentations. I'm also grateful for the Caesar salad the school served me at lunch and the pizza that the Arts Council brought in for the evening show but I think the real plan is to do what Kelsie suggested and come back to Macklin when the World Bunnock Championships
are on – that's when all the traditional German food that has deep roots in the community starts to come out of the woodwork. See you then, Macklin!
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works for the local credit union in Macklin SK – west of Saskatoon a few minutes from the provincial border with Alberta. As a delegate for last May's Credit Union Central of Canada Conference in Charlottetown had seen my presentation there and thought it would be a good thing to bring to her community one day. When she heard I was coming to Saskatchewan she put on her other hat as a volunteer with the Macklin Arts Council and sprang into action galvanizing support from the Council and the local school so here I am sitting in the empty gymnasium having just completed my first presentation of the day with two more ahead.
Quite rightly, Kelsie wanted to include the whole school community. While I have presented to groups of very young kids on a few occasions, I always feel like my presentation is a bit lost on them and tend to steer principals to inviting students about grade 5 and up. But today's first presentation was to be for kids in grades K-6 and I took this as an opportunity to really think about how I might customize the presentation for the younger kids.
The presentation really is about how Voyageur
is a living metaphor for a diverse and inclusive concept of nation building, culture and identity. Typically, I start with that abstract idea and make it manifest in an exploration of the guitar's construction and travels. Taking my cue from the idea of "building" culture and identity, for this younger group I started with a building material they're all familiar with: Lego (or insert generic studded plastic brick alternative here). That allowed me to talk about building representations out of something familiar and then transition into talking about Voyageur
as a construction made out of individual "bricks" – each one with it's own story. It still needs some work, I think, but in general I felt way more comfortable for the first part of the presentation today using this metaphor so I think I'll continue down this track.
Senior students Kiera Heinz
and Katie Lauinger
sang and played in the performance pocket of the presentation this morning and will reprise that role this afternoon so you'll meet them properly then. In the meantime, the picture above is of some of the grade 6 students who hung around after the presentation to get a close up look at the guitar and case and ask a few questions.
Thanks again to Kelsie Valliere for her valiant efforts to bring us to her community, to principal Eldon Germann
and all the staff and students at Macklin School who have been so welcoming.
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It seems ages since we've been anything but over Saskatchewan (I believe Ness Creek
was our last festival experience in SK) so when I was invited to speak this weekend to the 86th AGM of the Federated Cooperatives I decided to plan my travel a couple of days early and see some friends.
was one of the first connections to the Canadian music scene I ever knew personally. She was one of my sister's best friends growing up on our street (Neil McQuade
, whose dad was one half of Long & McQuade, lived half way between us and Gillian: he was the other). Her mother was one of the Allan Sisters
, who sang on the Tommy Hunter Show
. Though following a much more circuitous route through a Masters degree in Philosophy, Gillian did follow in her family footsteps and is an established singer and musician in Saskatoon's thriving scene. By coincidence, I arrived on the day of the CD release party for her one of her bands, The Whiskey Jerks
. Gillian set up an interview for me at Saskatoon's super hip community station CFCR
and sent her guitar player Peter Abonyi
to play Voyageur
during the session. That's Peter standing in the picture and CFCR station manager Jay Allan
, who conducted the interview.
Gillian was still conducting soundcheck while we were doing the interview but came over to the station afterwards and we got caught up as we took a little trip to – where else – Long & McQuade to rent the D.I. I forgot to bring with me. I guess that really is full circle!
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I've been living in my neighborhood for 22+ years so I've passed by Bishop Marrocco / Thomas Merton Catholic Secondary School
untold number of times coming to and from the environs of Dundas West Station. Heck, if you've read this blog even a little bit over the years you'll know how many times I've posted from Hugh's Room
, which is practically right across the street. A few years ago, a new logo went up on the building that announced it as a school with a special focus on the Arts. And I remember thinking when I first saw that sign: They really should think about having me come and do the presentation one day.
. Today was that day.
The special Arts logo is linked to the school's participation in the Specialist High Skills Major
program, a province-wide initiative which offers students enhanced learning opportunities to direct their studies toward a particular career - in this case a career in the arts. So it wasn't a full school assembly that gathered in their well-appointed auditorium today, but a group of about 180 students from the program across several grades. I have to say that it's a brave thing to consider a career in the arts – given that the realities of the Canadian economy and the political climate for artists is not especially... comfortable. There is reference to those challenges in my presentation so as much as I hope the audience was inspired by the project, I hope they also noticed the caution signs embedded in the presentation.
It is astonishing to me every single time how the story of the Golden Spruce
seems to connect with so many audiences, no matter the age or origin or income or location. Somehow, regardless of the fact that it's about a tree, it seems to tap into a deep well of humanity in everyone. The hush I feel in the room when the slide showing the fallen Kiidk'yaas
comes up is palpable and I'm honored to have any connection at all to this remarkable story.
As bright as today's students were, they seemed to be shy in equal measure so we had more difficulty than usual in attracting student players for the "performance pocket" but teacher Sean McClare
filled in ably and bravely with a tune about Rhonda and references to a Honda. I know what you're thinking: he did a Beach Boys
cover? No! It was an original and very funny to boot.
After the presentation, I made my way to the Sound Recording program lab where a smaller group of students (pictured above) came to hang out and chat and take turns with Voyageur
. There were also some excellent vocal performances and a group performance that were really great.
Thanks to Heather Corriveau
and Bill Heffernan
for making this presentation happen. Thanks to student Jose Vizinho
for getting all the tech up and working. Thanks to my special guests Sally Lee, John Beebe, Fei Tang, Tom Metuzals
and Daveed Flexer
for making the trip and thanks to all the staff and students at Marrocco/Merton for closing the neighborhood circle!
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The first official photographer of the Six String Nation was Sandor Fizli
. Sandor was based in Halifax-Dartmouth back in 2005 and I'd seen his photo of my guitar-maker, George Rizsanyi
, in the Globe and Mail
and got in touch to see if he would shoot all of Voyageur
's constituent materials as they came in to the workshop and various phases of the construction process. Sandor accompanied us to Parliament Hill for the big debut in 2006 and took some great shots there in tandem with Doug Nicholson
who has been the official photographer for the Nation ever since (with a few guest appearances by Jim Panou
). At this point, Doug has shot somewhere in the vicinity of 150,000 portrait images featuring Voyageur
with 15,000+ different people in every province and territory of Canada and at a session in Orta San Giulio, Italy. Add to that a similar or greater number of candid and performance images and you're looking at a unique relationship between photographer and subject closing in on half a million photos. I'm not sure even William Wegman
's Weimaraners have that many shots!
As much as I never tire of looking at Doug's beautiful images – and as much as I look forward to some upcoming photo sessions at events with Doug (looking at you Saskatoon!), I've always wondered about having other artists interpret Voyageur
in their own visual medium. I have a fantasy about a gallery exhibition featuring images of the guitar or representing the ideas of the Six String Nation by some of my favorite painters, for example. A recent encounter with an old friend in Parkdale lead to what I hope will be the beginning of the revelation of a whole new side of Voyageur
and I couldn't be more pleased with the results.
I first met Curtis Wehrfritz
back in the early '80s when I was a DJ at CKLN-FM in Toronto and Curtis was a student at what was then OCA (now OCADU, the Ontario College of Art and Design University). Our connection was music and Curtis was studying sculpture at school but he drifted into filmmaking and before too long had established himself as a unique voice in the fledgling world of music videos, making videos with artists like Holly Cole
, Crowded House
, Blue Rodeo
and (perhaps most famously) Leonard Cohen
, whose video for "Closing Time"
won Curtis a Juno Award. He's also made some great commercials, a feature film and a number of shorts....but as much as the commercial work keeps him up to date with the latest digital video gear, his passion has taken him back in time to a much more hands-on, much more artisanal process of image making.
Back in the fall, I bumped into Curtis while we were both out doing errands on Queen St. – we seem to bump into each other about once every couple of years just for good measure. Over coffee, we commiserated about life in the arts in Canada and Curtis told me about the work that was really firing his imagination. It revolves around what Curtis calls "photography 2.0" (though perhaps it's closer to version 1.2), wet-plate collodion photography
, invented in 1851 as a quicker and more stable advance over the earlier Daguerrotype
process. Curtis's studio includes camera boxes and lenses dating back to that time and working with them seems so at odds with our instant-image-obsessed culture. But that was part of the appeal of doing this series of photos. Not only does the technology capture light in a particular way, but the vagaries of the process of the wet-plate preparation means that the image capturing medium contains its own artifacts that reveal themselves in the developing stage. One of the things that really struck me as Curtis and I talked about what we might do, was that he saw these collodion photos as having a kind of layered character – almost holographic. He talked about the photos as being a bit like reliquaries from a dream state. That (if you'll pardon the pun) really struck a chord with me because in many ways Voyageur
functions in a similar way. While it appears to be a guitar on its surface, it is also a layered collection of stories that reveal themselves depending on where it is and who's playing it – as subject to the random particulars of the situation as photosensitive particles in the emulsion on the collodion plate.
We had a rough idea of what we might do and then one day in late November the stars aligned a little earlier than we thought they would and I went down to Curtis' home studio (it's just a few blocks away) in a converted dairy from the turn-of-the-last-century Parkdale. Curtis had set us up to do a series of photos themed to his "As Above So Below" series, which I thought fit perfectly with what Voyageur
brought to the party. Curtis captured four exposures on a couple of different sized plates. Each one has its own imperfections and its own mysteries and I love them all. When I left the studio they were still in the drying stage so I haven't yet seen them in their finished, varnished form but I can't wait! You can see scans of all four images in our Flickr Gallery here.
We haven't yet discussed what exactly is going to happen with all of these beautiful plates but Curtis has kindly offered me one or two. I'm thinking that the smallest format plate might work well mounted on Voyageur
's Calton case but I'm going to need some expert advice before we embark on that phase. In the meantime, I want to thank Curtis for the profound honour of doing these wonderful images of Voyageur
and beginning the expansion of this project's visual legacy. I hope everyone will love these images as much as I do.
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It's a bit of a dream to be spoofed, parodied, roasted, imitated, etc. It marks a kind of arrival. It can be uncomfortable watching James Franco
(or whoever) sitting there taking the most brutal insults from the others on the dais but you realize they have submitted to it because, having arrived on that stage, they know there is a toll to be paid – and who better to pay it to than your friends and colleagues who will one day switch roles with you and suffer your ribbing as the price of success.
So, first of all, I'd like to thank the producers of CBC Radio's This Is That
in Edmonton, who have "honoured" Voyageur
by spoofing it in a piece that airs again tomorrow at 11:00am
nationwide on CBC Radio One. If you don't know the show, that will serve you well if you listen for the first time tomorrow. It was the brightest spark in the 2011 crop of summer replacement shows and got picked up for the regular schedule a year later. In a style that will be familiar to fans of The Onion, This Is That
(conveniently un-acronym-able in polite company) mimics perfectly the earnest style of generations of CBC weekend magazine shows. It can be painfully funny until you get too familiar with the formula and begin to recognize the cast of voices too readily – which is why it pays to be a newbie. The segment focuses on a guy named George Bainbridge
and the realization of his dream – an object made from fragments of Canadiana brought together in an effort to overcome the challenge of connecting us all across Canada (sound familiar?): the Unity Shovel
(though, oddly, they seem to have fashioned a spade rather than a snow shovel – what's that
At the risk of looking a gift-gag in the mouth (wait a minute...that doesn't sound right) I do want to register a small objection:
There is a suggestion in the spoof that the project was funded by taxpayer dollars (1.5 million of them in the web headline, 150,000 of them in the audio). Now, I don't know about their fictional shovel but the Six String Nation guitar, Voyageur
, was not so fortunate. And in spite of having amazing adventures and being played by amazing musicians and connecting with tens of thousands of amazing Canadians (many of them also snow shovelers, presumably) in every province and territory of Canada, it continues to not be supported by tax dollars. In fact, it still faces some pretty steep challenges just to keep going. When James Franco takes a few on the chin for our entertainment, he's dressed in his formal-wear just like his friends/tormentors. CBC played a huge role in putting the Six String Nation project in a very precarious position – one that we struggle with every day to overcome. In retrospect, I'm glad that CBC Television took its hooks out of Six String Nation because I was increasingly afraid that what they might have made of it would have been the kind of show that This Is That
does such a brilliant job of satirizing. I'm lucky that the people who encounter Voyageur
at festival, conference, community and school presentations recognize it as something richer, deeper, more personal and more fun than that. I just wish we had the luxury of being stable enough as a project to receive This Is That
's roasting with as much grace and good humour as it deserves – even if that means renting a tux because I certainly can't afford to buy one.
If you can't tune in to the whole show tomorrow, you can check out the Unity Shovel bit here
. And be sure to check out my Twitter feed @SixStringNation to see a picture of This Is That
producer Chris Kelly
taken at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival back in 2006.
Thanks (really) to Chris, Pat Kelly
and Peter Oldring
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As I said in my post about the Sport Leadership Conference
earlier this month in Ottawa, I think there is a real resonance between artists and amateur athletes – especially in Canada: both depend on a combination of individual talent and teamwork to deliver the product to audiences, both try to connect those audiences to something within themselves and something bigger than themselves, and both are supremely underfunded.
The similarities were not lost on Ashley LaBrie
, director of operations for AthletesCAN
– an organization that supports amateur athletes in all their off-the-field challenges, from connecting them to available funds to advocating on their behalf at the provincial, national and international level. She extended an invitation to come down to a dinner at the Westin Harbour Castle in Toronto capping a day of activities for PanAm and ParaPan hopefuls participating in CIBC Team Next
– a three-year bursary and mentorship program for promising athletes.
I went down with Voyageur
and delivered an abridged version of the presentation to 50+ athletes and their mentors. It was a chance to continue the conversation with Stephanie Dixon
we'd begun the week before at SportLeadership, to meet the wonderful and energetic Olympic Gold Medal triathlete Simon Whitfield
and to share Voyageur
with a group of people all prepared to do great things for Canada. Two of them did great things for Voyageur
by playing a little for the gathering following the presentation: up and coming triathlete Andrew Yorke
played a little Neil Young
while 2012 Paralympian wheelchair racer Josh Cassidy
(coincidentally celebrating a birthday that night) favored us with some Radiohead
Photographer Ahren Cadieux
was set up to take some photos of the group and we managed to get just about everyone
– including the legendary 1996 Olympic Gold Medalist Bruny Surin
, pictured above motivating his mentee, sprinter Kimberly Hyacinthe
Thanks to Ahren and Ashley, to all of the #CIBCTeamNext participants and to Andrew Greenlaw
and his CIBC Team Next team for their support of these athletes.
Thanks also to Wojtek
for the audio-visual in the room.
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First of all, I want to acknowledge that my friends at the National Speakers Bureau
really do try to sell the Six String Nation experience to conference clients but I know it can be a bit of a tough sell. After all, if you're organizing a conference for health information management professionals or financial services technologists or hotel franchisees, it may not be apparent why you'd want your keynote speaker to talk about a guitar. But time and again I have the experience of sharing Voyageur
's story with an audience and there's this moment that happens when I feel a profound connection with the room. It's the moment when the audience realizes that the story I'm telling is actually about them
. At that point, all the connections that the project makes possible kind of come to life and everyone in the room feels that the story is a reflection of their own story, their own experience, their own organization. It's a beautiful thing.
I was very fortunate for this past weekend's event at the Westin Ottawa for the Coaching Association of Canada
's PetroCanada Sport Leadership Conference
that I had a couple of strong advocates in conference organizers Krista Benoit
and Kelly Michael
, who recognized the Six String Nation message as a great fit for the gathering. That opinion might not have been shared by everyone (or more likely it was just the result of over-indulgence at the awards gala and afterparty on Friday night!) as the ballroom was only about half filled on that first-thing-Saturday-morning slot. But gradually people filtered in and as I got further into the story, the more I felt the room was with me. It turned out to be one of the most profoundly affecting experiences for me of any presentation I've done. Here, after all, were elite-level athletes, coaches and association representatives who must be constantly aware of the relationship between individual contribution and national identity, cultural diversity and common purpose. It all capped off with a spontaneous request from the crowd for a rendition of "O Canada" which left not a dry eye in the house. I was honored and moved to be a part of the event.
The "performance pocket" was handled beautifully by Ottawa native Angela Marie
(pictured with me, above), who did two originals, "Built for Breaking" and "Like Shania" as well as a cover of Alanis Morissette
's "Ironic" – fitting in the singer's home town and I believe the first Alanis song sung with Voyageur
Following the presentation and the impromptu anthem, we repaired to the foyer where I signed books and people stood in line for over an hour to meet and hold Voyageur
. I was so grateful to meet with such a warm and enthusiastic reception and have so many people offer to advocate that Six String Nation find a role at the PanAm and ParaPanAm Games next summer. It's something I've been trying to do on my own but haven't had much success with... yet. I was especially touched by Paralympic multi-medal winning swimmer Stephanie Dixon
who co-emceed the event with fellow Paralympic swimmer Benoit Huot
and hung around to chat about a number of things once the line up had cleared. Stay tuned, we may be hatching a couple of really interesting initiatives in the future!
Thanks to everyone who attended, I'm glad you did. Thanks again to Kelly and Krista, Angela, Stephanie and Benoit as well as Dan Lamoureux, Conrad Hijazi
and the rest of the EPS Canada
crew who made everything run so smoothly. Thanks also to Lori Wagner
from Porter Airlines
not only for their support of the event and my travel to it but also for their ongoing support of Canadian amateur athletes and the great care they take with Voyageur
every time we fly Porter. And an extra special thanks to my dear Sarah Gillett
who handled book sales and made the whole weekend seem a holiday.
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