Today was one of those days that I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
It started at 6am when I looked out my window of the Government of Canada’s airplane and saw the sun coming up over West Africa. A few minutes later we were “wheels down” as they call it at Roberts Airport in Monrovia, Liberia. Their remarkable Nobel Peace Prize winning President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf met our Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the tarmac with a warm and humid, stately welcome. It’s safe to say that Liberia doesn’t receive heads of state on a daily basis, and it was Prime Minister Trudeau’s first visit to Africa since he assumed office, so the significance of the occasion wasn’t lost on anyone in attendance. We sipped our waters and swatted a few mosquitos and listened to the military brass band play both national anthems.
I’ve been an athlete ambassador with Right To Play for a little over a decade. In that official capacity I’ve visited dozens of communities throughout Africa and the Middle East, talked to Canadian kids in schools and corporate folks in office towers and to Ben Mulroney on morning TV just about anytime he’ll have me on. I love this organization and I’m committed to the cause for one simple reason; I know how critical sport and play opportunities are for young people, and I’m desperate for every kid in the world to have access to them. Simply, I believe sport is a right, not a privilege.
So when the opportunity to join a Canadian delegation to Monrovia, Liberia to visit Right To Play programs arose, it was an easy yes. I dropped my dog off at my mom’s and stuffed my yellow RTP t-shirt into my backpack and got on the airplane without a moment’s hesitation.
This is my third visit to Liberia, and I’ve witnessed remarkable progress since I first visited in 2007. This country, as much as any in the world, exemplifies the resiliency of the human spirit. It’s been beset by hardship for over a century but particularly over the past 25 years, Liberia is defined by her challenges. War, poverty and disease have tried to keep Liberians down, but they are just too strong. They continually fight for what’s good, work hard and dream big.
The Right To Play curriculum here is focused on child protection, gender equity and female empowerment, sanitation and disease prevention, and access to quality education. Over 21,000 kids here have access to RTP programming every week in schools, playgrounds and community centers across the country.
Today, when I saw PM Justin Trudeau, Minister of Youth, former school teacher and father of three interacting with the kids at Slip Way School in the classroom and in the schoolyard, I knew I was witnessing something truly special. His passion for children is palpable. He shook hands and introduced himself to dozens of adoring little kids after we played some kickball and presented the school with some locally-purchased soccer balls. He laughed and smiled and goofed around with these kids and everyone had a blast. Of all the school visits I’ve had the pleasure of taking part in throughout West Africa and in Canada, today was the most inspiring.
I’ve never been short on the opportunity to feel proud to be Canadian. Both of my parents immigrated to Canada in the 1950s as kids and I am thrilled that Canada continues to provide safe haven for refugees. I carried our flag into the Opening Ceremonies in Beijing and I sang along to O Canada in Athens.
Also, there’s The Tragically Hip, Arcade Fire, Penny Oleksiak and The Toronto Raptors.
But this was a little different. Today I witnessed Canada at its very best.
These days, Canada’s greatest export might be goodness, but the world is desperate for more. Liberia is among the most vulnerable countries on earth; kids and especially girls are susceptible to so much harm and risk in the developing world.
While these problems are in many cases far from home, Canada has challenges of our own. Our First Nations communities have many similar obstacles; it’s for that reason that I’m so thrilled to support Right To Play’s PLAY program for “Promoting Life Skills in Aboriginal Youth”.
Recognizing how fortunate we are as Canadians is only half the battle. We also need to act. If you’re interested in supporting Canada’s missions abroad then I’d encourage you to do two things. First, contact your local MP and tell them you support more funding for these initiatives. Second, find a cause to either donate to or fundraise for. My favourites are Right To Play, WaterAid Canada, The World Food Program and Doctors Without Borders. We’re good, Canada. Let’s keep sticking up for those that need it most.