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Calgary’s Dragon Boat Festival grows from 2019 highs

Visitors to the Glenmore Reservoir will see more than the usual sail boats and pleasure craft this weekend, as the annual Calgary Dragon Boat Festival has returned in full form.

This year, 53 teams competed in the international sport, up from 35 last year and near the record high of 59 in 2019.

What has grown larger is the festival side of the races with more merchants and more food trucks that ever before in the history of the event—50 of the former and 15 of the latter.

“Last year, we only had 35 teams, so the word got out we’re back,” said Danny Ng, organizer for the Calgary Dragon Boat Festival.

“We only had 14 vendors in 2019, but now we’re like, ‘the numbers are just going crazy.’ We’re gong to have 1,100+ athletes alone, and then I don’t know how many spectators because we got a marketplace that is drawing 50 vendors.”

Ng explained the excitement of the growth of the festival with the catchphrase that has become the embodiment of the entire Dragon Boat sporting movement: paddles up!

The festival, which went on a three year pause because of the pandemic, returned in part said Ng because of longer term sponsorship deals made to make it financially viable each year.

Natural gas producer Sinopec signed on as the title sponsor for a three year period, something that he said made his jaw drop.

“A big sigh of relief came out and I said a big thank you, because of what that means for the community,” Ng said.

“It means that we’re stable for three years. We don’t have to look for a chunk of money to fund us. So then that gives everybody a sense of stability, and when that stability is there, then there grows innovate innovation and improvements.”

Ng said that stability has resulted in more volunteers getting involved, and a greater interest from the community.

“Everyone wants to make this successful now. They’re all jumping on the boat to make it successful,” he said.

That support included Mount Royal University and Southland Transportation, which Ng said stepped up to help address the perennial parking issues in North Glenmore Park when the festival has been held.

Racers compete in the Calgary Dragon Boat Festival at North Glenmore Park in Calgary on Saturday, August 12, 2023. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Cross cultural values on display, but also competitive sport

Catherine Yuen, the principal consultant for Western Canada for the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office (HKETO), said that the sport of Dragon Boat racing has been a long-time cross cultural event between Hong Kong and North American countries.

“In 1986, the Expo year, it started in Vancouver first when Hong Kong donated six Dragon Boats. It kicked off and then it went across Canada to the major cities: Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa,” she said.

“I’m really happy to see that after two-to-three years of the pandemic, it is coming back—this year is actually full strength. It’s a very good sport, and it’s also a platform for cultural exchanges.”

The Government of Hong Kong was another one the supporters of the festival for 2023.

Yuen said that support came from wanting to build those cross-cultural bridges.

“The beauty of [Dragon Boat Racing] is has become a sport, rather than just something originated from China,” she said.

Ng said that as the sport grows, the limitation on bringing more national and international level competition to Calgary is really just the size of the docks and the race paddock.

“If we were to hold nationals, Dragon Boat Nationals in 2025, or anytime in the future, we need a new dock system. One that is to international standards,” he said.

“And if we have a dock system, that dock system will hit the heart of canoe club, rowing club, dragon boat, sailing club—all of us, because we all use this. We all use this and we’re going to take care of because we got to use it.”

Off the water, the festival also includes GlobalFest and community cultural performances. Community groups representing Chinese, Indonesian, Ukrainian, Caribbean, and more were given a space to share their culture on the main stage.

Sistership Dragonboat Association paddler Deb White gets some high fives in a tribute to breast cancer survivors at the Calgary Dragon Boat Festival at North Glenmore Park in Calgary on Saturday, August 12, 2023. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Bringing attention to more than sport

One of the major highlights of the Calgary Dragon Boat Festival for 2023 was the annual breast cancer race, which saw more than a hundred racers line up to give breast cancer survivors an emotional tribute of crossed paddles as they exited the docks.

Tom Attwater, a documentary filmmaker from Montana (Attack and Release, 2021 Google Economic Impact Report, Fish to Fire Series), was in Calgary over the festival weekend.

He has been working on a documentary on the Silver Linings Dragon Boat Club of breast cancer survivors. They joined Calgary’s Sistership and Edmonton’s Breast Friends for the breast cancer race.

“I’ve followed them as they’ve raced, in practice, and i’ve gone through some treatment with some of the women and followed them through their cancer journey as well as their paddling journey,” Attwater said.

“I think it’s very empowering for them. For the first time in a lot of these women’s careers, and in their lives, they’re looked at as athletes, they’re part of a community.”

He said that the eventual goal is to get his film when it is finished into as many film festivals as possible, including the Calgary International Film Festival.

“If it encourages one woman who has been diagnosed with cancer to join a team or find a community or get in a boat, then this whole film is worth it,” Attwater said.

Deb White, a first time paddler with the Sistership Dragon Boat Association, said that she joined the team after moving back to Calgary during the pandemic.

Although diagnosed in 2018, and having met paddlers in Vancouver where she lived at the time, she said it was this year she joined a dragon boat team.

“Ever since I got here this morning, people are like ‘you’re gonna do this, and here’s some tips.’ And then on the boat, I just got lost in the moment,” White said.

“This is so amazing to come from a cancer diagnosis to being out there and feeling so alive.”

Sistership fundraising chair Joanie Snodgrass said that breast cancer isn’t ever going to go away, so there will always be a need for organizations like hers to provide community and support to survivors.

“We are looking to expand, and we want to accommodate everybody as best we can. We don’t want to turn anybody away ever, so we are fundraising for another boat and we just want to keep getting better,” she said.

“One of the things that we do provide is hope. I just remember at the very beginning when I was diagnosed, your friends and your family, they really don’t know what’s going on. They want to be comforting, but it’s really not until you actually see other survivors doing something amazing, you don’t really feel hope.”

She said that inside each of their boats is the names of the paddlers who have succumbed to cancer—gone, not forgotten, and still providing inspiration.

The association is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and as part of that inspirational message Sistership raced with new jerseys with the phrase “stronger together” on the back.

“We’re paddling beside our spirit paddlers,” said Snodgrass.