- Written by Krysta Remington
Written by Krysta Remington
Cameron Breadner at 23, has helped deliver a baby, watched a man die from stab wounds, spent months on the rigs alone and away from home; but he is passionate about his career in the emergency services field and sees it as his end game.
As a young fresh-faced 21-year-old, Cameron Breadner’s first day as an Emergency Medical Responder or EMR, was a foreboding and jittery one to say the least. For the majority of people starting a new job their biggest worries are being on time, wearing the right attire and making a good impression. In the emergency services field people’s lives can be at stake and mistakes should not be made. It was October 2007 when Breadner got his first EMR-related job on the oil rigs as that is one of the few things EMRs are qualified to do. An EMR is not qualified to be on an ambulance yet; further education is needed. Rig sites or corporate employers are usually the companies that hire EMRs. Breadner’s first rig site was in the Albertan deep valley, which is within the triangle of Fort McMurray, Edson and Hinton. “I went with the first one [rig company] that called me back. It was based out of Hinton. I was given my rig location, directions, a map, a radio and they sent me on my way,” Breadner says.
Breadner arrived on the rig site with a head full of swirling images of rig workers getting their arms chopped off, hands getting crushed, multiple workers becoming injured at the same time; basically any worst case scenario. The day became a game of waiting for something terrible to happen. First the drive to the rig site. Three and a half hours. Orientation to the site from the medic he was relieving. A mere 15 minutes. Walking around introducing himself. Half an hour. There were not enough distractions to kill the time. This anxiety did not finish when his first day was over. He was terrified for the first week on the job. It was Breadner’s first ever job in the emergency services field with no previous experience, he was alone and the nearest hospital was a two and a half to three hour drive to Edson. He spent his time (which he had a lot of) conjuring up the most outrageous and gruesome possibilities and then running to his textbook for the answers. Nights were sleepless and when he did sleep it was restless. “It took me several hours to tossing and turning to finally fall asleep and when I did it was not very restful. Twice in that week I got up between 12 and 3:30 in the morning, got up and got dressed, drove down to camp to get breakfast you know and made it into the kitchen before I realized what time it was, then I had to go back to my shack and sleep for a few more hours. When I was actually sleeping it was alright, it was just when I was awake that I was thinking about stuff,” he says. If the thoughts didn’t keep Breadner awake, there was a constant rumbling from the 24-hour rig site with three shifts of workers. The whole ground vibrated, as his sleeping quarters were no more than 40 feet from the rig.
On April 1, 2009 the government of Alberta, through Alberta Health Services or AHS assumed responsibility of Alberta wide emergency services. There was and still is a lot of re-structuring going on and Breadner says this caused a hiring freeze from May 2009 to September 2009. When hiring did start-up again there was a backlog of graduates and transfers waiting to get onboard. He had just finished his practicum at the end of May and since then has found it difficult to find work as an EMTA or Emergency Medical Technician Ambulance, that he had gone back to school for after a winter season on the rigs.
In order to get his foot in the door, Breadner spent seven long months on about 10 to 11 various Alberta rig sites until April the following year. He had been hired on by Oilfield Medical Services, a company that posts EMR related positions on the rig sites. No serious injuries ever occurred while Breadner was on duty meaning a lot of time was spent just plain waiting. Boredom and loneliness aside, Breadner worked on the rigs for the experience in the field because he eventually wants to go on to become a paramedic. The paramedic position is the highest one can go in EMS and it involves constantly updating their knowledge. Rig salary was also a draw so he could travel and further his education.
The anxiety of expecting the worst on the rigs eventually went away and Breadner became an avid Olympics watcher and a fan of the Battlestar Gallactica TV series. Breadner saw every single one of Michael Phelps gold medal wins in swimming at the Beijing Olympics. It was toward the end of Breadner’s stint on the rig sites when he arrived at one that really threw him off. He had a sense of what a good crew was like and which drillers and rig managers were heavily into safety and which ones were a bit lax. “They cared a little bit less about it. It was almost a joke to them. It felt as if they were going to be injured at any moment and it made me nervous and made me feel like I was back in my first week on the rigs way back when,” Breadner says. With the anxiety feeling back, this time beyond first day jitters, Breadner contacted his boss to get a transfer to a different rig. Two days after Breadner was gone, one of the rig workers got his hand crushed.
The uncertainty of the oil and gas industry at the time left Breadner jobless with six grand in his bank account. He did what any young, single, 21-year-old male would do. He went backpacking to Europe for an adventure. After a few months of drinking Guinness and being woken up in the middle of the night by tall, 200-pound German men asking him to go for a beer, Breadner came home. He went back to school that September 2008 for his Emerge EMTA qualification. Since then he has completed his EMTA practicum in a major metropolitan area within Alberta and is currently volunteering at a rural station until he finds a stable position.
Breadner has been unable to find that stable position in the EMS field for the past six months and not for the lack of trying. His grades were always high and he is very personable, but he is licensed to work only in Alberta so his options are already limited. On top of that there was a hiring freeze when AHS first took over, right after he had completed his EMTA qualification at school and was ready to work. He has been to a few initial interviews in Sylvan Lake, the Crowsnest Pass area, Edmonton and a few others, but so far has only been hired at a rural volunteer-based station. He lives with a three roommates and pays his rent by landscaping. He has been with the same landscaping job for years so whenever he needs some extra cash they hire him back on. He loves the physical aspect of landscaping, but his heart is in the EMS field where he can constantly learn and apply his intellect.
In Alberta there are three levels of Emergency Medical Services or EMS. The first one is Emergency Medical Responder or EMR, which qualifies you for working on a rig site, in corporate settings or on Basic Life Ambulances. Basic Life Ambulances are a rarity in Alberta and are found in small towns and rural areas. In Breadner’s class put on by St. John’s Ambulance in Calgary, there were mostly firefighters, police officers, nannies, stay at home moms or people like himself who want to go higher in the EMS industry. It is two weeks of full time study or six months of part-time study, with self-study beforehand. A current CPR card and valid first aid is required. EMR’s scope or practice is based on symptom relief. Symptom relief means no treatment is done, but they try to lessen their[the] patient’s level of pain and/or suffering. EMRs are not qualified to be in an ambulance. The next level is commonly known as an EMT, but it is actually an EMTA an Emergency Medical Technician Ambulance. An EMTA certification comes from a year long program, usually a class four license is required and it has a large practical portion of the course. They are qualified to work in ambulances, but in large cities a paramedic needs to be in the ambulance with them. Their scope of practice goes beyond EMRs’ with being allowed to administer more drugs and can be a bit more hands on, but it is still symptom relief. If an additional two years of schooling is done with around six months spent out on practicum than and EMTA becomes an EMTP, which is an Emergency Medical Technician Paramedic. [A] Paramedic’s scope of practice is treatment based. They can realistically give whatever drug or treatment is required on the way to the hospital. Paramedics constantly have to update their knowledge of new drugs and new technologies as the medical field is constantly changing.
All Breadner wanted to be growing up was a police officer. “When I was in kindergarten and we were all sitting in a circle. The teacher went around the circle and did that exercise and asked every child ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ You had the kids who wanted to be a superhero or the kid that wanted to be a doctor and whatever. One of my friends said he wanted to be a bank robber. I was up next so I immediately said I wanted to be a police officer so I could catch him and throw him in jail. After I said that, I thought about it a little bit and decided it would be a cool idea. From kindergarten to about grade 12 all I ever wanted to be was a police officer. The plan was to graduate high school and get into the academy right away.”
The realization that being a cop would be a lot less about car chases, shootouts and catching bad guys, and more about traffic tickets and walking the beat made Breadner think twice about signing up for the academy. His parents also discouraged this career choice because they were concerned that he would burn out in a couple years, as some police officers do. In high school, whenever Breadner took those career tests in the top three spots he always had paramedic. He dismissed it, but the excitement and medical aspects appealed to him. Breadner grew-up in a medical household with his mother Arlene Breadner who has been a public health nurse since he was born and his photographer father Ross Breadner who had always had an interest in medicine who also completed an undergrad in psychology and anthropology and had even dissected bodies for medical students.
Breadner ended up somewhat going in the direction of his father and completed a year at the University of Calgary in general studies with courses including sociology, Greek and roman studies and anthropology. Arlene thinks that he might go back to University in the future and she sees him having two to three careers in his lifetime. “That’s just Cam. He is like a renaissance person. He appreciates a wide range of interests and intellect. He can appreciate good art, good music and good scotch. He’s worldly. He can survive in the bush, but he appreciates culture. He is not your red neck Alberta kid; he is very different and is confident in what he likes.”
As far as university Breadner says, “Everything I took I enjoyed, but nothing was what I could do for the rest of my life.” With that in mind he left school and did some landscaping, worked at a liquor store and essentially tried to figure out what he was going to do for a career. In January 2007, he decided to go for his EMR qualification. “There was no eureka moment, it just kind of crept up on me that EMS might be a good career path for me. That is my end game. This is what I can see myself doing and would like to do for the rest of my life,” Breadner says. He sees life as an active pursuit and thinks that EMS translates well with his drive to do exciting things in life, because it is a dynamic profession.
Breadner graduated from Southern Alberta Institute of Technology or SAIT. According to their website it says that EMTA graduates are in high demand and in 2008 the department, School of Health and Public Safety that EMS is in had graduates with a 97 per cent employment rate.
Stuart Brideaux, the public educational officer for Calgary’s EMS says that if Breadner upgrades his education to a paramedic, than getting hired will probably be an easier task. He says past practice in Calgary specifically was hiring approximately 90 per cent or higher paramedics and the remaining 10 per cent EMTA’s. About five years ago, due to demand they started hiring more EMTA’s and now it is roughly70 per cent paramedics and 30 per cent EMTAs, he says. This is due to the by-law that requires at least one paramedic if not both of them Brideaux says in the ambulance at all times for an ALS or (Advanced Life Support) ambulance.
At the moment Breadner is volunteering at the rural EMS station to add experience to his resume, but if he doesn’t get any job offers soon, he might be back to school for his paramedic qualification sooner than planned.
The emergency services industry whether it is a firefighter, a police officer or a paramedic, are viewed as being the do-gooders of society; sometimes even as heroes. Not in the cliché sense of wearing spandex filled with pumping muscles, but in the making other people’s lives better sense. Breadner’s describes his life’s motto as being somewhat grass roots. He wants to do as much good for the world as possible, while doing the least amount of harm environmentally, physically and emotionally. “I’ll take an active role in helping other people when I can, but at the same time I won’t screw someone else on the way up,” he says.
Breadner doesn’t fit the mold of a typical hero, nor does he want to. He is a medium build, intellectual guy and doesn’t have the infamous police officer moustache. (The moustache as Breadner explained is because in order for oxygen masks to make a complete seal, men need to be clean shaven. The mask goes right over the bridge of their noses, meaning a moustache is the only facial hair they are allowed. Hence; a lot of moustaches.) Breadner refuses to do the moustache thing and is clean shaven with a face full of freckles 23-year- old man now. He’s a jeans and t-shirt kind of guy, who sips on scotch, listens to jazz and heavy metal and plays the bass guitar. He is thoughtful with his words coming across as very well-spoken. Arlene describes that even when Breadner was younger he always chose quality over quantity with his friendships. He still stays in touch with his childhood friends and when his family first moved to Alberta from Calgary the first friend he made is still his best friend. One of his three female roommates Danielle Roberts says, “He’s extremely dependent. You can ask him anything and he will give you straight forward and assertive answers without any extra judgement in there. He looks at both sides of the story, assesses the situation and doesn’t just tell you what he thinks you want to hear. He is the kind of guy that can have fun, but doesn’t take that out of control. He is a cool, calm and collected guy with a sense of humour; which is a bonus.”
He didn’t get into the emergency services field to be a hero; he just has a general interest for the medical field and enjoys the excitement and unpredictability of the job’s nature. This unpredictability means constantly waiting. Waiting for the tones that signal there is a call to tend to. Regardless of years of experience, or level of qualification when those tones start ringing the adrenaline floods and the heart pumps a little bit faster. Breadner can sleep through a 24-hour ongoing rig site with constant vibrations nowadays, but those tones are engraved in his brain from his time on practicum. The tones go off he is awake and alert regardless of how deep the sleep was.
Despite what people may think, the tones don’t go off every hour on the hour. The monotony of waiting is part of being in the emergency service industry. Breadner knows this feeling a little too well, “There is lots of downtime. Not a lot happens. People don’t get as sick as movies or television portray. The majority of your calls are non-serious medically related issues. The women who gets into a car accident with four kids in her car, or the gunshot victim, or the 40-year-old stock broker who is having a full blown heart attack don`t happen that often. Just patients who don`t feel well. That could be literally the verbatim problem that they present you with. I just don`t feel right. And then it’s deciding from there whether they are ambulatory, whether they should be taken in, whether they can go in with their own power, or whether their just scared; because a lot of them are.”
Brideaux who is also a paramedic himself says around 80 per cent of calls Canada wide or at least the vast majority are for medically based issues like diabetes, breathing, heart disease or an already diagnosed disease. The remaining 20 per cent of the time he says are traumatic based calls including injuries, motor vehicle accidents, assaults, electric shocks, falls, industrial accidents and any other dramatic injury.
Fire halls and service stations are equipped with televisions, computers, gyms, and kitchens; anything to distract the workers from the clock. Instead of waiting for the tones of an emergency call, Breadner is currently waiting on the ringing of his phone for an opening in the EMS field. Breadner has completed his practicum and now is hoping to be hired in a Calgary or Edmonton station full-time. Until then he makes the two-hour drive to his volunteer rural station once a week for a 48 hour shift. He gets paid $100 per trip, but after $50 on gas, and $10 on drinks and snacks, he isn’t left with much. Breadner isn’t doing it for the money, but for the experience. Since Breadner is new to the EMS field and is currently looking for work he doesn’t want where he is volunteering or where he did his practicum mentioned.
Unfortunately for Breadner, in the first couple of weeks he has been at the rural station not much has happened. This is a good thing for the people in the area though. There was a heart attack call, but it happened on a night he was driving back home. He was extremely disappointed the next time he was at the station, the call was written on their whiteboard and he realized he had just missed it. The whiteboard keeps track of all the calls they have received and the outcome of those calls. But when Breadner says “Nothing happened,” it should be taken with a grain of salt because he did deliver a baby his first day on the job during his practicum in a major city.
Dressed in his button down black shirt and black pants with reflective striping and SAIT’s EMS student patch, Breadner arrived for his first day of practicum for a big city ambulance last May. [he asked not to say which one, he feels this might jinx his chance of getting hired.] “It was very, very nerve-racking. We didn’t get a call for an hour or so on shift, which is normal but it felt a lot longer than an hour. It was excruciating. I had worked on the oil rigs before, but it’s a different vibe and a different job. I thought we were going to get called out to some multiple casualties shooting.”
Breadner was spending his first time on the job with a paramedic and an EMTA, his two preceptors for the remainder of his practicum. He had arrived at the station, which was joined-up with a fire hall. He was introduced to a couple of the firefighters, shown around the station, they did an equipment and supply check of the ambulance, and then he was left to just hang out until the tones went off.
One of his preceptors was on the computer checking his e-mails; the other one was watching TV and Breadner was left trying to read his EMS textbook; not absorbing a thing. All he wanted was that first call over with. The paramedic had pulled him aside and asked him if he wanted to take the lead of the first call or if he just wanted to sit back and be directed. Breadner chose the latter.
The tones went off. “I can’t describe them, but I can hear them perfectly in my head. It’s not a ringing bell like a fire hall, it’s a standard beepy overhead tones. It’s very loud; it’ll wake you up even if you’re a heavy sleeper. It becomes a conditioned response kind of thing. Because the tones are important and that’s your job, you get conditioned to wake up immediately. I can even hear the tones in my head now and I’ll wake up a little more. Or if I hear them on TV and they are similar to the ones that were in the hall, I feel my body wake up more.”
The type of call isn’t announced over an intercom, but instead sent through in code to personal pagers the team is wearing. The code consists of a number and a letter. The number states the specific type of call it is: cardiac, allergic reaction, sick, chocking, etc. The letter states the severity of the situation. An alpha is the least important. No lights, no sirens. Beta means lights and sirens at discretion. Charlie means lights and sirens and a possible life threatening situation. Delta is a very serious call meaning the standard heart attack, shooting, etc. Sirens are required. Echo means a diseased person. No revitalization is required, as the person is obviously deceased.
Breadner’s first call was a beta, abdominal pain. It was only two blocks away from their station. They turned the sirens on, drove the two blocks and knocked on the door. There are even rules about busting into someone’s house. The first step on arrival is to knock or ring the doorbell. Hopefully someone answers; they can ask what the problem is and usually head on in. If there is no answer, they have to look in all the windows and if they see someone in obvious distress they can try to gain entry be breaking a window or getting through the door. But if there is no response, nothing going on through the windows or if it’s an apartment with no windows; they can’t do anything. They just have to try to find a set of keys or wait for the police to gain entry for them.
“I actually had a call like that. It was an old folk’s home. A woman`s personal alarm that she wears around her neck was going off. She was quite sick and had terminal cancer. There was no answer at her apartment. We couldn`t see anything through the windows so we called cops, but in the meantime we got a hold of a building superintendant who lives on site who had a set of master keys. We finally gained entry and it was nothing. She had left her pager and had gone out for a walk and it had gone off by itself, she wasn’t even home. You could imagine the controversy if she had come home to a busted down door. With two people standing inside her apartment tracking mud with their boots everywhere,” he says.
At the residence of Breadner’s very first call, the wife of the man who was in pain answered the door immediately and let them in. They went upstairs to the bedroom and an elderly man was lying in bed. He was quite sweaty and pale in his pyjamas. He told Breadner and his crew that his abdominal pain was eight out of 10. “People are pretty good at putting a number on their pain. You will get some 10 out of 10s or 12 out of 10s, but most people are good at giving their pain a rational, actual thought out value,” he says.
“We went through his vital signs, and then we went through his list of medications. I was standing back and assisting when I was told to. The paramedic was running the call and the EMTA was working on the electronic patient care report, so he was sitting in the corner getting the list of medications, listening to the call and recording all the pertinent information to fill out the paperwork later.”
Breadner assisted with the vital signs, taking his pulse, blood pressure, respiration and getting oxygen on in case they needed it. He had done the vitals so much in school that there was no thinking or hesitation.
After about half way through the call (10 minutes had passed) the man suddenly got up and said he needed to have a bowel movement. They got him out of bed, took him to the bathroom and when he came out he said his abdominal pain had gone down to a three out of 10. He had just been constipated. They did a second set of vitals because they always need at least two, asked him if he wanted to go the hospital, he declined and they were on their way down the two blocks back to the station.
“Once the actual call happened I was okay. It was a good first call. School can help you be a better EMTA for your actual skills and give you lots of practical knowledge. But nothing can prepare you for how intense some calls are going to be or how nerve-racking for instance your first call is going to be. Nothing can prepare you for that.”
Half an hour after that first call, Breadner helped deliver a baby. The very next call. The original plan was to let Breadner run this call and the paramedic assist, but that quickly changed when they arrived at the women’s house and they realized birth would be happening right away. The paramedic took over. Breadner got some blankets for the floor of her living room and during his taking of her vital signs she had a second set of contractions and the baby began crowning.
He helped deliver a healthy baby boy. His supervisor cut the cord; they dried the baby off and wrapped him in blankets, got both mother and child loaded onto a stretcher and took them to the hospital. “It was an amazing first day and a really good call,” he says.
Breadner was on the big city ambulance for a month for his practicum. To complete an EMTA practicum it can take longer than a month as long as a minimum of 192 hours are logged, as well as attending a minimum of 40 calls. Brideaux says that in Calgary specifically (using soft numbers) they receive 260 calls in a 24 hour period. “We’re substantially over 100,000 calls per year.” These calls are split amongst 24 ambulances that are on around the clock with staff working in 12 hour shifts, another 18 that are on periodically for 12 hour shifts from morning to afternoon. This means that in mid-to-late afternoon during peak times there are 43 ambulances on duty. Brideaux says that each unit cannot have 100 per cent unit utilization, which would mean they would have to have more ambulances on. Each unit can receive seven or eight calls per day or sometimes two or three calls could take up their whole day he says. He adds that the numbers of calls don’t necessarily change on different days of the week, but the types of calls may change. A Wednesday morning typical call is different from a Friday night typical call.
Breadner survived his first day and an entire month in a big city ambulance, but he describes himself as his own worst critic. He can never live up to his own expectations and never accept a job well done. This is his biggest weakness as a person, but he says it is also his biggest strength. “It’s a double-edged sword, because it allows me to get better at my job. That ability to step back from yourself and kind of assess your situation and what can be improved as a sort of third party.”
Especially on his practicum Breadner found himself expecting to be talked to about his mistakes by his preceptors after each call. “It’s a good quality to have for EMS, but at the same time you dwell on your mistakes more than giving yourself credit for doing as good of a job as you could have.”
Arlene says, “From a toddler on, he was a perfectionist. If he didn’t do a puzzle the first time, he would get frustrated and couldn’t deal with it.” Arlene also describes him as silently very stoic and brave. When he was 10 she remembers when Breadner went to a camp in Ontario three hours away from home on an island for 10 days by himself. He didn’t know anyone, had a great time and when Arlene asked him if he was worried about being away from home he said, ‘Well I knew it was a camp and I knew I was going home.’” Arlene says “He wouldn’t think it was brave, he was very pragmatic about it.”
This constant need for improvement combined with Breadner’s constant need to know everything about everything are good qualities for an up-and-coming EMS professional to have, as well as any other job. It doesn’t matter if it is a simple trivia question or what ingredient would make his eggplant parmesan dish that much better (yes a man in his twenties that cooks), he hates not knowing. This is the kind of person that doesn’t just study for his exams to have the information flushed out the next day. He retains the information and will be prepared for whatever obscure and out there kind of calls he gets.
Brideaux who has had experience as a paramedic says, “It challenges your abilities, your skill-set and requires lifelong learning.” He says as long as EMS workers keep broadening their skill-set that it is not the stressful job everyone makes it out to be. Situations become stressful when children are involved or there are multiple patients.
“The calls that I think are fun and exciting are the ones that initially get your blood pumping and maybe are a bit stressful at the time. But in retrospect they are different, they are new, they are that exciting call you have been taught at school but you almost never see. Things like emergency child birth or running a cardiac code or a really serious motor vehicle accident. At the time it may not be enjoyable, it’s definitely something to look back upon,” Breadner says.
The most gruesome call Breadner has had to date was a homicide call. “We picked up a homeless man who had been stabbed in an altercation. He was bleeding to death on the pavement in front of us when we arrived. We got him into the ambulance to take him to the hospital. We tried to revive him on the ride there, meanwhile he was bleeding everywhere from multiple stab wounds. He began vomiting towards the end as well. He died on the way to hospital.”
EMS obviously is not for the type of people that faint at the sight of blood or get the shivers at the sight of needles. Breadner says his calm; almost nonchalant attitude doesn’t mean he is a cold person or that he doesn’t empathize with his patients or even that he is not affected by gore.
Arlene says Breadner “is a cut and dry fellow. He can think through a scene quickly. He likes to open his mind up to other ways of thinking. He is very liberal with his thinking.”
Breadner says, “It’s not like the majority of EMS workers see everyone as walking slabs of meat and don’t picture a person when they see a car wreck. It’s just that within EMS the majority of people have the ability to take themselves out of the situation at least temporarily and put their personal feelings away. Do their job until the situation is over and then they can go back to themselves and work through whatever issue they may have because of it.”
Even if saving a life meant going out of an EMS’s professional scope of practice, Breadner would not do it. He is an EMTA now, so if he ever administered a drug or a treatment practice that was in a paramedic’s scope he could be fined, be tried in court and go to jail or have his license revoked. It is drilled in their heads as students as the biggest if not the biggest rule they have to under no circumstances go outside of their scope of practice.
“It sounds heartless, but even if it was my dying mother I could not in good conscious go out of my scope of practice if I was on duty. I might know what to do, I might have even been informally trained on what to do and could competently perform that action, but if it went outside my scope of practice and it came back that this had happened. Even if it had saved her life and she was under no lasting harm because of it, I could still be reprimanded for it at the very least and at the very worst be sent to jail and have my license revoked.”
I had to ask him if he would feel worse if his own mother died or if he was in jail for saving her life or attempting to save her life?
“Well in the case of my own mother, it’s not very cut and dry. But if it was a stranger on the street. No. Never. I would never go outside my scope of practice for someone I don’t know even if I knew how to do and could do it. It’s absolutely never going to happen.”
Eventually Breadner wants to go for his paramedic, so then he will not have that ethical issue to deal with. Breadner has been sending out his cover letters and resumes, gone to a few aptitude tests, which are usually written testing your knowledge sometimes with scenarios. Breadner has also completed his physical test. The physical test is usually done set-up as an obstacle course with some running or sprinting portions, lifting and carrying weight that is supposed to be similar to a human body and tests your overall endurance. He regularly runs and lifts weights on occasion, so he never stresses out about the physical tests and just treats it like any other workout. Now that all these steps are done, he is just waiting on call backs and hopefully his volunteer experience in the field will help getting him onto a bigger city ambulance. Until then he can spend his evenings off from landscaping sipping on his Lagavulin scotch from Islay, reading and going to see some live music. His love of scotch definitely came from his father Arlene says and his love of cooking comes from their family’s routine. Dinnertime was important. Both Arlene and Ross like to cook and every night was a full course meal. She says they rarely had fast food because of their love of food and it was cheaper to cook from home.
As far as Breadner can see, this is his career path and eventually he might go for his M.D., but he would still want to be involved in EMS in some way. “The only thing I can possibly see is getting burnt out and sick of the monotony of some people’s problems. It is quite monotonous. The fun, interesting and exciting calls are very few and far between. A lot of medics get to the point where they don’t want to deal with that anymore. They move on. I could see myself possibly reaching that point too,” he says.
Breadner’s stay in the industry also depends on where the industry itself goes. “EMS is quite new in the world. There have been battlefield medics for years and years. EMS has only existed in North America since the mid-1970s and only in Alberta since the early 1980s basically. So, it is an extremely new system when compared even to police and fire that are also part of the emergency services that have been around for quite a long time. Paramedics are still trying to figure out where they fit and where their medical expertise can be and should be used,” he says.
EMS at the moment could be on the brink of expansion and new developments, and Breadner says it already is starting to become such a wide spread career. “It’s no longer a very secular group that attracts a specific type of person down to a T. There isn’t any one type of EMS professional.”
Where Breadner is now in his life he says is because of a series of small, seemingly unconnected events that have led him here. He is not a believer in fate. “Life is random. If you want to do something, generally you can. Never underestimate the power of drive and ambition of a person. Sometimes good things and bad things happen to random people and that’s just the way things are. There is no point in dwelling on that.”
Somebody knows somebody who has been in an ambulance at some point. Breadner understands this. He may see around seven or eight patients a day and work several shifts a week, but he knows that this is probably going to be their only ride in an ambulance. This will be one of the few face-to-face times they have with an EMS professional and that is the impression they will have for the rest of their life. “If you sour that, then you sour every future experience, so I try to minimize that.”
That first day on the rigs Breadner spent worrying about what freak accident he might have to handle and what he would do if it actually did. He has obviously come into his own because now he actually hopes to for the exciting and traumatic calls that challenge his skill-set. All the blood, gore and broken bones that most people would like to just see only in the movies await him in at what will hopefully be his lifelong career path.
- Written by Kelsey Riecken
Written by Kelsey Riecken
How baton twirling and a love of performing led one man to do something he
The show begins with waving spot lights and loud circus-like music playing from the speakers. The stage is adorned with potted plants, small indoor trees flank either side of the low stage and red theatre curtains hang along the roof. About 70 people, an equal amount of men and women, have come this Sunday night to watch five different drag queens perform at Twisted Element night club.
The fourth act, a lip-synching performance to a Rihanna song, is Chi Chi, or Cory Archer by day. He walks onto stage and waits behind the curtain for his number to begin. He is dressed in a long navy-blue dress with a black trench coat over top. His hair and makeup are impeccable, Archer makes a gorgeous woman, and it takes him hours before each performance to get ready. “It’s addicting, you get a sense of love for the stage. You have a passion in putting on that make-up every Saturday night,” said Archer.
Twisted Element is a gay night club located in Calgary’s downtown on 10th Street and 11th Ave. S.W. Every Sunday night, female impersonators take the stage and perform a lip-synching routine for the crowd that has accumulated.
A drag queen is a man who dresses and acts like a woman for the purpose of entertainment. Certain features, like lips or eyelashes, and mannerisms are often exaggerated for a dramatic effect. “It’s really fun to watch, these guys have a lot of courage to go up there and perform so well in front of everybody,” said Chelsea Boutillier, who was in the audience watching the drag show. Archer performs in drag, not because he wants to look like a woman, but because he loves to entertain people and he loves to perform in front of an audience, it provides him with a sense of excitement and accomplishment.
Becoming a drag queen was only a natural progression for Archer, age 20, who while growing up, was a world champion baton twirler. Archer came out as gay, or as a “walking pride parade,” as he likes to say, while still a teenager. Most of his family supports him, with his maternal grandmother being his main support and his mother having attended one of his shows in the past. However, some of his family, like his father and step-mother, isn‘t as accepting of his lifestyle. “I handled them fine and I really couldn’t care less what they think.” “But of course it still hurts when people don’t accept you but you learn to get over it,” said Archer of his father.
While sitting around an August campfire with some friends, most of whom are gay, I first heard of Cory Archer. They spoke about Chi Chi with a tenor of admiration and told stories about the courageous and sometimes funny things he had done. I asked my best friend, who works with Archer at the downtown Telus call-centre and who is also gay, to introduce me to Chi Chi so we could discuss his life as a gay man and drag queen in Calgary. He agreed and invited me to his home.
Walking towards the quaint, rented bungalow, on a street just off Edmonton Trail, the front door opens and a man, who hasn’t seen me yet and could only be described as flamboyant, begins to do cartwheels down the walkway leading to his home. This must be Archer. He stands, with amazing straight posture, about average height, with short brown hair, a neatly shaven face, and hands that gesture in a wispy sort-of-way when he speaks. Archer finishes a cigarette, and he invites me into the bungalow he shares with three roommates. The house is clean and simple and Archer just recently just moved in. We can speak while he organizes his new drag room, he says. A drag room is a room where he keeps his gowns, short dresses, tank tops, and high heels.
Archer represents a young, gay man in Calgary, albeit, a very flamboyant one. By day, Archer holds down a full-time job at the Telus call-centre downtown, and when we met, was wearing jeans and a black t-shirt. By night, he’s Chi Chi, performing on stage at Twisted Element. While Archer unpacks the bags for his drag room, he pulls out and hangs up a black and blue sequined mini-dress, faux-leather skirt, feather boas, and a bright orange and pink floor-length gown. “Obviously I love women’s clothing, and the make-up and everything like that. I am a huge gay boy and I still wear make-up when I am out of drag.”
Archer was born in Invermere B.C. in 1989. His mother, Kim Green, was 15-years-old when she had Archer, so he was raised for the most part by his grandmother, Rose Green, while his mother finished school. Archer’s father was around for the few first years of Archer’s life, but his parents did eventually separate and both parents have since remarried.
Archer’s grandmother always knew he was gay. It was apparent in his actions, he was always with girls, and she just always had an inkling. “I just let him do his own thing, until he got brave enough to tell his mom,” said Green.
Archer told his mother he was gay after a fight when he was 16-years-old. They had gotten into an argument after his mother wouldn’t allow him to travel to Vancouver to visit some friends, “It was basically a screaming match and me screaming back ‘what don’t you get? I’m gay!’ and I slammed the door and walked out of my house, got in my 1997 Cavalier and spun gravel right back at her car.” He returned home at four o’clock in the morning and left a note for her, explaining that he really was gay and he was sorry. “And the next day she was fine,” added Archer. Archer had specifically asked me not to discuss this with his mother, as he feels it still upsets her.
Archer was always a performer, even as a child. “Even when he was little, he used to roll on the floor and pretend to do stunts and wait for us to applaud him. If we didn’t applaud loud enough he would get upset,” said his mother Kim. His baton twirling coach in Calgary, Loranne Meek, echoed similar sentiments: “Cory was a hand full. He always needed attention and always wanted to be watched. As long as he had an audience to perform or practice in front of he was at home.”
Archer began his performing career in baton twirling because he knew he would get more satisfaction from it than anyone of his male peers would get from playing a sport like hockey.
Meek describes baton twirling as combining technical training, manipulation of the apparatus, intricate choreography, musicality, and performance simultaneously by the athlete. In his most successful season, Meek said he was twirling and dancing 20-plus hours a week on top of finishing his schooling. “I would say his ability to juggle all of these abilities simultaneously now allows him to be a charismatic stage performer because now he can fully focus on his performance abilities only,” said Meek. Archer retired from baton twirling because he believes he has gone as far in the sport as is possible, aside from teaching. Meek teases him, saying he will return to twirling in the future. “For now, I love to see him perform in drag on stage and continue to support him however I can. He is like a son to me.”
Archer has travelled to Japan, Spain, Rome, and the United States competing in the baton twirling world championships. Archer was on team Canada, created by the Canadian Baton Twirling Federation, from the age of 12 until he retired from the sport at 18. “I went to six world championships and I was 12 when I did my first,” which was in Saskatoon, said Archer. Archer then traveled to Spain in 2003, Japan in 2004, the United States, where he won a bronze medal in 2005, Italy in 2006 and finally Hamilton in 2007 in the World Baton Twirling Championships.
Archer began performing as Chi Chi in 2007. He had just moved to Calgary from B.C. to train with Meek, but had recently retired from baton twirling. Archer would dress up in drag with his friends and go watch the drag queen shows or perform in the basement on the open stage at Twisted Element. “Watching them I decided I was pretty enough in drag that I wanted to do it as well.” Six months later, Chi Chi was performing upstairs at Twisted Element. “That was a really quick evolution of a drag queen, it doesn’t happen that quick, ever,” Archer explained.
To Archer, being a drag queen isn’t about looking like a woman, it’s about the performing aspect. Archer said it is something you can never retire from. “This is something you can’t get out of now, you can’t stop being a drag queen. They can try and retire all they want but they’ll be back someday.” “Chi Chi is mine to keep,” said Archer with a smile.
The music has started and Archer bursts out from behind the curtains. You can tell he thrives on performing, and his act is full of energy. The song begins slowly but as the music progresses in intensity, so does Archer’s act. He throws off his trench coat, the crowd cheers, and Chi Chi gives a small grin before continuing his performance of lip-synching and dancing. One can’t help but smile while watching Chi Chi, his performance is entertaining, full of talent, and there is absolutely no fleck of nervousness in his flawless movements. He finishes his act and walks off the stage to the crowd loudly applauding.
- Written by Edward Osborne
Written by Edward Osborne
An international security expert plays cat and mouse with a reporter until the very end. The prize: Amanda Lindhout, the Red Deer woman abucted in Somalia
It’s been over a year since freelance journalist Amanda Lindhout was dragged from her vehicle in Somalia and taken into the hands of the Al-Shabaab Islamist group. Having only been in the country for three days, she and her photographer Nigel Brennan found themselves hostages of an armed gang, far from home, and with little support.
The family was afraid to talk in case media attention brought the already substantial $2-million ransom higher. Her parents, John Lindhout and Lorinda Stewart, received little or no assistance from the Canadian government and things seemed desperate.
Then, on November 25th 2009, the hostages are released. After 458 hellish days, Lindhout and Brennan appear in a hotel in Mogadishu, planning to fly to Nairobi that night and then home.
As news of her release surfaces on the Internet excitement hits me like a wave. This is it; this is my chance. Less than a half hour after the news breaks, I am on the phone with Gregory Boyd, editor of the national desk at the Globe and Mail.
“We’re interested in your story,” he says to me “But I want you to bring every connection between Lindhout and this guy to the top of the article . . . every time he mentioned her, make sure you get it in.”
He gives me an hour to get a workable draft ready, faxing me a freelance contract and an agreement to exclusivity. I’m about to make the biggest deal of my journalism career.
At 8:22 p.m. EST, my story, Who Freed Amanda Lindhout? goes up on the Globe and Mail website. It spikes to the second most read online story, and will stay in the Top 10 for the next 24 hours.
But less than an hour after uploading I will be glued to the phone with Boyd, surrounded by a forest of notebooks, papers, photographs and printouts. Boyd sounds suspicious; unsure of his decision to buy my story.
“This Daniel Clayton fellow. He’s saying he’s never met you.”
My heart drops.
The first time I met Daniel Clayton was in a small brightly-lit office in the Banker's Hall office building downtown. His hair is cropped close and gelled back, and his handshake is the warm vice grip one would expect from a military man. There are no pictures of family in his office. Instead there are framed images of soldiers jumping from helicopters, a statue of a Lancaster Bomber, and a world map pimpled with pins that dominates one wall. He brushes dust from the sleeve of his dark grey suit and folds his hands across his chest expectantly.
Clayton runs a self-described “Risk Management Company” out of Calgary called Diligence Ltd. He is the only person from Diligence I have ever met. But he says it also has three regional directors, 25 full-time crisis operators, and approximately 150 “connections” that can be called upon. There are bureaus and offices in London, Kabul, Baghdad, Lagos and Jakarta, just to name a few. His “operatives” are employed in war-zones around the world. They offer bodyguard work, development of security plans, and have been known to break into locations to provide information on weakness in infrastructure. This is known as “penetration testing,” and is often to serve as a wake-up call to the vulnerable company or institution.
Clayton is an ex-special forces soldier from the United Kingdom with a penchant for fine food and firearms and lives a life so shrouded in caution that to me it borders on paranoia. I first got onto Clayton when I was commissioned to do a story on Amanda Lindhout during her captivity. At the time coverage was minimal and almost no one was willing to speak on the subject. Except in a number of articles I found commentary from Clayton. He’d lambasted the federal government for their lack of response and made a number of alluring statements about the situation on the ground. He told the Toronto Star on August 23: "We have the location of where she is. We have a cell-phone number for the group that's actually holding her. We have a lot of credible intelligence. Enough to mount a rescue if the government was so inclined."
But in September he clams up. When I ask him about Amanda Lindhout he says flat out that he can't say anything about the subject, that it is too risky. And then tells me conspiratorially over the phone to “keep an eye on this story over the coming weeks . . . When she’s back home and safe we can sit down and I’ll tell you whatever you want to know.”
So I take an interest in his company, something to keep me close and involved until the Lindhout situation develops into something solid. When I leave his office we shake hands and he smiles as he says to me “Remember, if you write anything I didn't say. . . I know where you live.”
The second time Clayton meets me; he withholds the location of our rendezvous until 12 hours before we are scheduled to be there. This means a late evening phone call to his office and some questioning “about my purpose” before he tells me to be at the Shooting Edge the next morning. He's going to be training some students, and has agreed to let me take pictures. This course only happens a few times a year, where Clayton takes in a handful of men to turn into Hostile Environment Close Protection Operatives. Armed bodyguards.
Clayton emerges from the snow with heavy boots and a woodland camouflage jacket. He ferries boxes into the private range that are overflowing with rope, knives, dummy grenades, scopes, ammunition and bottles of water. I'm told to wait outside while they get ready.
Five bulky guys brought their own weapons and their own outfits just to practice. They joke and play like teenagers and despite a few strained muscles from the day before, they are excited to go.
Inside the double sets of soundproof doors is an empty hallway. It’s just over 50 metres from the door to the steel backing and the Volution Trap at the end of the range that collects spent bullets. Five paper silhouettes dangle from wires on the ceiling. Many of the fluorescent lights have burnt out, and it is cold enough that we can see our breath.
They start with basic pistol drills. Crawling on their bellies, lying on their backs, and firing with their off-hand just to try different levels of comfort. They memorize acronyms of roles and equipment for their upcoming exam. If they pass they'll be able to work in Iraq and Afghanistan as bodyguards and private contractors. But first they have to get through Clayton. In the office Clayton told me “we usually know the people we hire from working with them before” so none of these guys will end up on the Diligence payroll. Instead they each pay him $2,250 to get the training and certification.
Troy Wiebe and Adrian Anderson, the two men on the firing line draw guns from hip holsters and work on their “double tap,” pulling the trigger twice in quick succession to improve stopping power. They only shoot once a week but they score 35 out of 40 shots in less than a minute. As they rotate off for the next pair of shooters Wiebe offers a fist bump.
“This is so much fun,” he is literally grinning as he reloads his magazines.
Wiebe works in the oil industry, but he was also a key part of Alberta Tactical Rifle: The Calgary company manufactures its own weapon parts and produces custom firearms in the $12,500 price range. Wiebe used to test accuracy of these rifles until he says he was “cut loose” as a result of the recession. Now he does part time gunsmithing and plays with products until he can get back into it professionally.
The smoke clears and we're called back to the other side of the safe line. It’s time for an entirely different set of drills.
The duct-tape pulls at my skin painfully. My wrists are bound in front of me as though at prayer, with elbows touching at my stomach. There are already six layers of tape, but Anderson wraps one more around just to be sure.
“Good luck getting out of that.” He laughs and tosses the tape onto the workbench next to his Glock and combat knife.
You only get one chance to tear free of duct-tape. If you fuck it up, the tape just stretches, leaving you writhing around like a damaged dancer. The trick is to psych yourself up, and then use your radius bone as a cutting edge.
My wrists are so tight together the pulses seem to touch.
This won't work for plasti-cuffs, the favoured restraint system used by the U.S. army. If you use this method to get out of those glorified zip-ties you will chop your wrists raw. The fastest way to get out of plasti-cuffs is to find a vehicle and force your wrists against the hot exhaust pipe. You'll blister and burn, but it'll melt through the cuffs in seconds.
I set my boots a shoulder width apart and hunch over. I close my eyes and try to focus on my breathing.
Not five minutes ago I was watching Anderson try this exact same technique. We had to cut him loose after he wound up just wrenching back and forth. Now I'm the one under inspection as Clayton watches with his arms crossed.
I didn't sign up for this. But after cutting Anderson free Clayton pointed at me with the knife and told me.
“F$%k it.You're here, and we're ffffffing tying you up!” He laughed and took me by the shoulder, propelling me towards Adrian. “Look at all those little hairs! They're going to tear right out.”
Daniel Clayton was born in Britain, where his grandfather served in the Canadian Airborne. Beyond that, he shares very little. “I don't have any parents,” he says.
He always wanted to be soldier, though. When he was 16 he dropped out of high school and forged his mother's signature to get into the British army. She had no idea until the first day of basic training. He served from July of 1997 until 2004, doing tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. He served in the aviation unit of the UK Special Forces, before moving to Canada in 2005.
He founded Diligence in 2006, selling off a security arm of the company two years later. “I work on the business instead of in the business,” he says.
So now I suck in deep breaths and imagine a car accident. This is to get the adrenaline going in your system; to cheat yourself into a high energy state.
“Better stand back.” He doesn't think I'll make it.
I rip my arms apart in a forceful twisting motion, fracturing my radius in the process. I won't know that till two days later but right now all that matters is I am free. They cheer, I laugh, and Clayton prepares for the next lesson.
By the time the rifles come out, I've filled up my camera with photos of men training and wrestling. Clayton pours water on them, flashes my strobe in their face, and forces them to put their arms into a bucket of snow, all for the sake of mimicking combat stress. And even when they come away cursing, they slap each other on the back and swear to do better next time.
This is combat neutered. The guns are real, the kinship between men is real, but nobody's going to go home in a box. Sure Clayton might tell them it's training for reality, but the fact is these guys are all happy in their jobs as technicians and managers. They will never have to go overseas and experience targets that shoot back. It is a fabrication.
As they pack up I pepper Clayton with questions, most of which he refuses to answer. He admits to being afraid once, when he thought he'd driven over an IED in Iraq in 2005. And he confesses that his fiancee calls him “the tin man” at home, apparently because he has no heart.
I do warn him that I'll be calling again, leaving my door open. Shortly after this news comes that Lindhout might have been moved from her holding position into the remote wastelands of Somalia. This comes as disheartening news, and I call Clayton to see what he might offer. We end up discussing the ins and outs of war correspondence and the importance of buying ransom insurance, a service his company sells.
I'm a little taken aback when he says to me, “I'm a big believer in that you always get what's coming to you. If you go over to one of these dangerous countries with no training whatsoever and get kidnapped; you have no one to blame but yourself.” He seems frustrated, and when I ask him about Amanda's situation he tells me “I know what's going on on the ground so I can't comment.” It all seems very exciting, but he refuses to tell me any more than that.
Until November 25th, when she's freed. Before I call the Globe and Mail, before my harried night of long distance phone calls, I dial Clayton's cell. I have to call four times before he picks up. I share the news, but of course he already knows.
“Was this you?” I ask.
“Well I . . . I can't confirm anything at this point. I can confirm that a ransom has been paid, that she has been released and that she's on her way home.”
“But, was it you?”
I'm a little taken aback when he says to me, “I'm a big believer in that you always get what's coming to you. If you go over to one of these dangerous countries with no training whatsoever and get kidnapped; you have no one to blame but yourself.” -- Daniel Clayton
“I've been teaching a course today so I'm very busy, but I can tell you it's been a crazy day for me.”
He promises to meet and talk on Monday. But Monday is too far. I know that the story will have passed by the time he is willing to sit down and give me an after action report. So I offer the Globe and Mail what I have. A story of hinting and supposition, which makes no solid claims, only offers a possibility of involvement.
Within 15 minutes of the story going up Clayton calls me on my cell-phone. He’s never done this before.
“I presume the story in the Globe is from you?”
It’s a strange question, my byline is right at the top.
“That story has to come down right now. If that’s in the newspaper tomorrow morning then this could go seriously wrong.” I get nervous. One of the main reasons kidnappings are suppressed in the media is because the attention can change the dynamics of negotiations. What if Lindhout isn’t as free as I’d thought? What if I’ve thrown things into jeopardy by exposing Clayton? I try to back out of it, telling him that I’ll call the Globe and ask what would be needed to make the story acceptable. But that’s not enough.
“Just get it down!” he’s shouting now. “This is the sort of thing that wrecks careers, and rest assured I will wreck yours if you don’t fix this.” This sparks a flurry of back-and-forth between Clayton, myself, and various people at the Globe and Mail. My story is refined to frame Clayton more positively, but it stays up. No facts or quotes are removed, and I’m actually relieved when he asks me to buy him coffee on Monday still. It seems like things have worked out okay.
Two days later, he emails me a press release from Diligence, explaining that he had nothing to do with Lindhout’s release. That while he had gathered intelligence he was never contracted by the family or the government and that Diligence “withdrew our involvement approximately six months ago, when we learned of other efforts being co-ordinated to rescue Amanda.”
He cancels our final interview.
- Written by Nadine Miller
A mother of two, Karen Blair, has always been a firecracker, from phoning every store in Regina to pursue a boyfriend, to flying airplanes. And as she turns 50, she shows no signs of slowing down -- from swim mom to real estate agent -- this is one mom's story of moving back into the work force.
She stands tall at 5-8, with a slender but solid build, natural fiery red hair and a face full of freckles. When you run into her on the street she is most often seen wearing black from head to toe with her blackberry glued to her ear and her reading glasses perched on top of her head. Her hair is cut just above her shoulders. Her fingers are covered with rings, and her nails are always kept long and red. She has a booming voice and eyes that squint as she smiles, which she does often. “I’m not a conformist, nobody in my family conforms,” said Blair, a fact that she is proud of, a fact that she has chosen to base her life on.
As you step into her house you immediately feel the aura that Blair exudes. An eclectic collection of antique furniture, rich colors, red walls, and china cabinet filled with sparkling crystal wine glasses are the first things that catch your eye as you enter her house. She has mirrors everywhere, glass tables, and a huge dark oak dining table that is great for her many dinner parties. Her house is impeccably clean, with one exception, her office. Her office sits in her front living room looking out into the garden below. It is covered with real estate books strewn across every inch.
Her tiny black laptop sits on top of the desk, where you can often hear the clicking of her nails as they hit the keyboard. A bluetooth device is embedded in Blair's ear as she walks throughout the house conversing with anyone and everyone trying to find deals for her clients.
Blair, who turned 50 this summer, decided it was time to follow some of her forgotten dreams, like becoming a successful career woman. She is now working as a realtor and coming to terms with her children growing up and leaving the house. "What do I want to do with the rest of my life? I want to grow up. I mean it all happens so fast, how did I ever get to be 50?" said Blair.
I met Karen many years ago through my parents she was the wife of one of my father’s co-workers and her and my mother. Valerie. became quick friends.
“Karen is one of those people who just has an inner energy that attracts people to her, you just want to get to know her, and find out what her story is,” said my mom, Valerie Miller.
Her life has been an adventure, one that didn’t always end in the right direction, one based on the idea of the road less travelled. Blair was always a wild child, pulling pranks, staying out late, partying until the sun came up, but she always got good grades and kept a close relationship with her parents and siblings. She strove to live life to its absolute fullest.
Originally from Quebec, Blair has never lost her French Canadian culture, maintaining not only the language but also the spirit of the Quebecois people. She got into figure-skating at an early age, a hobby that she has hung on to for her entire life. She snuck out of the house, danced at discotheques, earned her aviation tech degree, flew airplanes, chased the love of her life across the country, and charmed her way into the hearts of many people her life touched. She acted as event coordinator for the Calgary Cascade Swim Club, taught skating lessons, and after years of being a stay at home mom and occasionally working part-time jobs, Blair, a dedicated wife and loving mother of two boys, put an end to her swim mother days and took on a new career, just as her husband began to wind down to retire.
“I was happy to see Karen finally get a chance to do what she wants, I know she always wanted to have her own career. She spent her whole life with me and the kids.
“We’re proud of her, plus it gets her out of the house,” joked Karen’s husband, Martin Blair.
Karen chose to go back to work once both sons were safely away at university. She represents a growing number of middle-aged women who are choosing to reenter the work force after their kids are grown. According to the report, "Women Entrepreneurs: Leading the Charge" released by CIBC, the fastest growing group of business women are those over 55, with an annual growth rate of over 4 percent, which actually doubles that of self-employed men in the same age group. Karen earned her real estate license, and now at age 50 she shows no sign of slowing down.
Blair came West as part of the Front de Libération du Québec or the FLQ exodus. Born Janice Karen Millet, Blair grew up in the suburbs of Pointe Claire and was the last of four kids. “I was the baby the one who got away with everything, the one who got her way all the time, plus I had a big mouth,” said Blair.
She had two older brothers and a sister, “My sister was perfect, she looked cute and all the rest, and I was the one who wasn’t, I was the tomboy,” said Blair. Her brothers were more than 10 years her senior so they were moving out as she was growing up. This left her father alone, with three women. “My father had no one to play with, so he took me along with him everywhere,” said Blair. “When it came to changing tires he dragged me along, I remember being six years old driving in his lap and by 10 I was the one driving the car.”
Karen’s mother was a teacher, her dad a salesclerk. “My dad was always the big the talker, my mom the bookworm, something that I guess I picked up from her because I always have a book with me,” said Blair.
“In those days you could call and let it ring all day and all night until the phone company disconnects the call. I wanted to get a hold of him and I was really jealous. There was no caller ID so one night I called and let it ring all night. I went to sleep with it ringing and it was still ringing when I woke up so that meant he had been gone all night.” - Karen Blair
Karen’s mom was one of seven children and she was raised in a conservative Catholic family: church every Sunday, bible verses every night, hymns, and prayers were part of daily life. Her mother’s sister even became a grey nun later in life, where she continues to follow her faith to this day.
Karen fondly remembers her aunt, “I remember wanting her big cross, her big hat and the cape, maybe I like black so much now because of her,” she joked.
Karen’s mother, a nonconformist was an atheist but her father was a devout Protestant, who made the children go to church every Sunday until they got old enough to say no.
At a young age Karen got her first pair of skates and began spending her days down the street at the local outdoor skating rink in Pointe-Claire. She loved skating, and her mother soon put her into lessons.
“Back then skating was one of the only sports available for women, I had endless amounts of energy and my mother saw skating as a place where I could burn some of my extra energy off,” said Blair.
Blair’s childhood was full of early morning practices and skating competitions. There were: Flowing, glittery costumes, bruises, medals and the sound of her blades carving through the ice. Skating became more than a hobby, it was Blair’s passion. She wanted to become the best and trained with professional coaches rigorously. Her parents spent their time and money helping Blair get the best possible training. As she got older Blair realized that she would never succeed at becoming the best in the world at skating, but she still refused to give it up.
“I was big for the sport, all the other girls on the ice were these tiny, petite things, and then there was me towering over everyone. It takes a lot more force to lift someone like me into a jump then for a tiny girl. I knew I wasn’t going to the Olympics, but I still loved skating,” said Blair.
Blair lived in Quebec until she was 16. She resided in a Pointe-Claire which was a predominantly English area where you could speak both French and English. She grew up at a time when the French were often the blue collar workers and the English-speaking people held the white collar jobs. However, all of this changed when the French militant group the FLQ took power and began carrying out attacks on mostly English speaking people.
Karen recalls this time with fear, “When I walked to school there would be militia on the street. They could detain you without reason because of the War Measures Act. My oldest brother Kim had long hippie hair so they would stop him and question him all the time.”
Karen came from a French family with the last name Millet, but her father chose to give his children all very Anglican first names because he felt it would allow them more social flexibility later in life.
“After the FLQ crisis it was better to be openly French because they gave them all the good jobs, it was like reverse discrimination. My father was 40-something and this new political atmosphere was not one he liked. So what do you do? You pick up your toys and move,” said Blair.
Two years after the FLQ crisis, in 1973, Blair and her parents moved west to Vancouver.
“I went to high school in Vancouver and I hated it, you can’t move a 16-year-old away from all her friends and expect her to be happy.”
Blair switched schools and learned to settle into her new life. She was 16 and getting into trouble.
“I used to do many things I shouldn’t have done back then. I was 5-71/2, big for my age and it was at a time when platform shoes were in style. The shoes I had were six inches in the back and four inches in the front, that would put me somewhere around 6-1, I would wear them and I could go anywhere, all the discotheques,” said Blair.
Blair graduated from Carson Graham high school six months early because she had extra credits from Montreal. She decided to take a calculus class to prepare for a course in aviation technology and that’s where she ended up meeting her future husband.
She walked into class and instantly headed to sit in the front of the class. She glanced to the back of the classroom and that when she saw him. They caught eyes and he came to the front to say hi and he said “you fly?, I fly and that was the end of it.”
He told her he’d take her flying the next weekend. She had already been taking flying lessons before their meeting and for their first date he kept his word and they went flying. After that he took her waterskiing on his motor boat in the Fraser River. “He was great, no wonder I liked him so much!” exclaimed Blair.
“Then he came to my 18th birthday and I didn't know how old he was but I did not want him to know how old I was turning so I called every family member and told them not to tell or I would tell their secrets. I thought Martin was probably in his 20s so I couldn’t risk him finding out how young I was, but the one person I didn’t tell came in and yelled happy 18th! His jaw dropped. I was beet red. It was so embarrassing.”
Blair had been dating him for nearly five months when she found out he was 10 years older than her. Her parents didn’t care, her mom the rebel said “you can do something stupid whatever time of day, you make your own decisions.”
Blair continued to date her future husband Martin on and off for the next few years. He moved away for a job he got in Winnipeg and Blair stayed in British Columbia to take her Aviation tech degree at Simon Fraser University.
At 22, she moved to Edmonton.
Blair recalls that while living in Edmonton she desperately missed Martin and tried to call his house every five minutes until he would pick up.
“In those days you could call and let it ring all day and all night until the phone company disconnects the call. I wanted to get a hold of him and I was really jealous. There was no caller ID so one night I called and let it ring all night. I went to sleep with it ringing and it was still ringing when I woke up so that meant he had been gone all night,” said Blair.
With no answer Karen called his manager at work and asked where Martin was.
“His manager said he was in Regina doing an audit, so I phoned every store in Regina asking if Martin Blair was there from the audit department. They all panicked thinking they are going to be audited. I phoned until I found the right one. He was at one of the Regina stores and I finally found him got them to put him on the line. He was so surprised to hear from me, but not surprised that I was able to track him down. I told ‘Martin, I have a ticket to Regina to come and see you’, I had bought a ticket before I even talked to him. He picked me up from the airport, and we decided to finally get serious about one another,” said Blair.
“Karen never ceased to amaze me, she was always doing impulsive and crazy things, and that’s what I loved about her. I liked that she was strong and independent, and even a little kooky at times. She embellishes anyway, I’m sure the story didn’t happen exactly like that,” laughed her husband Martin.
Blair won a dozen roses on Valentine's Day by calling into the radio station and telling them this story which she says is “not stalkery, it’s romantic.”
Blair then moved to Winnipeg for a while, then both she and Martin both moved to Edmonton.
“I graduated from Simon Fraser with my aviation degree, and I really struggled to find a good job, it’s a competitive industry that’s for sure,” said Blair. She finally found a job working as a pilot for a small company just outside of Edmonton.
“I flew a 421 turbo prop pressurized. I had all my licenses. Being a junior pilot, there would be like 10 people trying to get my job because you have to build up your hours and it was hard to get a job in aviation.”
Blair got married to Martin at age 24 and decided quit her job working as a junior pilot.
“We got paid by stat shoot mile, so you would get paid by how many miles you flew. And if you worked it out I was getting less then minimum wage,” said Blair.
Shortly after quitting her job, Karen decided it was time to have children. After a miscarriage she had her first boy, Aaron while still living in Edmonton. It was the 80s and there was a major recession going on, people were selling their houses for one dollar to other people in hopes of not ruining their own credit, times were hard. Luckily though Martin was still working for Shell Canada who paid for moving expenses so the family picked up and went to Calgary. Two years later Karen gave birth to her second son, Leigh.
“I lived with three males and the cat was male too. Holy smokes, that’s a lot of testosterone,” joked Blair.
With two small sons, and a husband who worked long days, Blair became a full time stay at home mom.
“I felt like I needed to stay home with the boys, they both had so much energy and were a bit of a handful, I am their mother and it’s my responsibility to make sure they stay on the right path,” said Blair.
Blair does admit that she did have some concerns though.
“I was worried, you know? I didn’t want to be bored, and I didn’t want to become one of those moms who lose themselves,” said Blair.
Blair took on the role of motherhood in stride. She was part of the PTA, coached teams, joined mother groups, volunteered at the school, anything she could do to stay involved. She played an active role in both her children’s lives, something that neither of them took for granted.
“I remember always feeling lucky that my mom was the one who always took my class on field trips, or made snacks for me and my friends when I got home from school,” said Leigh, Blair’s youngest son.
She enrolled Aaron into competitive swimming because she felt it would help him burn off some of his extra energy.
“Teachers were always telling me Aaron had Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and I knew they were crazy, Aaron wasn’t bad he just had a lot of extra energy and he needed a place that would focus that energy into something productive. I found that with the Cascade Swim Club in Calgary,” said Karen.
“I was worried, you know? I didn’t want to be bored, and I didn’t want to become one of those moms who lose themselves.” -- Karen Blair.
Blair acted as an event coordinator for the Cascade Swim Club and Aaron pursued his swimming career up to the Olympic trials. Meanwhile, Blair was also involved in helping and encouraging Leigh with his passion for rugby.
“I really feel like if I hadn’t decided to stay home with the boys one of them would have definitely ended up or jail,” confessed Blair.
Aaron Blair, said he was happy to have a mother like Karen, who was always there for him even when he didn’t want her to be.
“My mom wasn’t always like other moms, she definitely does things a little differently than other moms, but I learned to appreciate that about her. She was the mom who took us sailing, and skiing on weekends. She was the one who went on crazy vacations like when we went on a bike tour around France. My childhood was filled with fun adventures,” said Aaron Blair.
As the boys grew older and went off to university Blair was left an empty nester. Although, Leigh her youngest still lives at home at age 21, he is taking full-time classes at the University of Calgary and working a part time job. So he is rarely seen around the house. Blair decided she was not going to stay home anymore. She wanted to go and find herself.
“I’m glad my mom decided to go back to work, it keeps her busy, and she seems happy. I think it’s good for her to have a life of her own,” said Leigh.
Blair took matters into her own hands and headed downtown to take some career aptitude tests.
“It was great, you go down and fill out a bunch of these little tests about your personality, interests and how you behave and it matches you up to an appropriate occupation,” said Blair.
Once she was done the results came back and recommended she take a job working with people, that allows her to get outside the office and partake in hands on activities. One of the jobs recommended was a real estate agent.
“I was excited with the results and decided to pursue this real estate thing, I got my license and started selling houses, I thought hey I’m not so bad at this after all,” said Blair who entered real estate in 2006.
It was hard for Blair at first to re-enter the work force.
“I did doubt my own abilities, I figured no one would want to hire some woman who just spent the better part of her life raising kids, but then I thought what the heck, why not just go for it, make the best of what I have to offer,” said Blair.
Blair says she understands why women struggle with the decision to go back into working full time.
“It is just such a big decision, to go back to work, you never quite know what to expect, or how people will react to you, it’s scary but so worth it, I have never regretted my decision to go back to work once. I am happy, I’m happy with my job, and my life,” said Blair.
Karen wanted to become a career woman, and she went out and accomplished her goal.
Blair says that she finally feels fulfilled, and that she would tell other women that they should never give up on their dreams. She says she would encourage other women to go and take career aptitude tests to figure out what they want to do, and then go and pursue that.
“I think women nowadays are capable of anything, we can be mothers and have jobs after too. My husband is mostly retired and I am just getting into the swing of my new career, it’s a good thing though, and it’s been good for me,” said Blair.
Karen’s husband Martin agrees that her going back to work has been a good thing.
“Karen always talked about going back to work, and I encouraged her to go and do that. I’m ten years older than her, and I am going into retirement but that doesn’t mean she needs to do that with me. Karen has always been an independent woman, even if I hadn’t agreed she would have gone and done it anyhow just to prove me wrong,” said Martin.
Blair is now a successful real estate agent, making over $100,000 a year. She sells houses throughout the city, of all different price values. But she also continues to partake in old hobbies like garage-saling. She constantly has some project on the go, and is known as the handy-woman in her group of friends.
“I always know that if there is a problem stringing cable, trimming trees, painting rooms, or rebuilding something one of the kids broke, Karen is always the one to the rescue,” said Valerie Miller.
Another friend of Karen’s, Brenda Anderson, says that when she was moving back to Calgary a few years ago it was Karen who jumped in to help her family find the perfect house. She says that Karen is and has always been the woman who will give anything to help her friends.
“Karen is just a really nice person. She lives what she says, and I think that is something a lot of people lack these days,” said Anderson.
Karen Blair is an ordinary woman, with an extraordinary attitude. She has spent her life pouring her soul into everything she does. She is not afraid to take chances and make mistakes and she says that some of her biggest risks have had the biggest pay-offs.
“I haven’t always had the calmest life, or the best luck, but life is what you make of it, and it’s all about your attitude and how you look at things. Taking chances is the only way to get rewards,” said Blair.
This is a motto she has clearly lived by, from becoming a pilot, to chasing her husband across the country, to becoming a real estate agent because a career aptitude test told her to, Blair has never been one to shy away from opportunities.
“I haven’t had the chance to do everything I want to do yet, but who has? I’m just going to keep living, and keep working towards things that make me happy,” said Blair.
- Written by Kelsey Chadwick
Written by Kelsey Chadwick
After two decades of training, plus sacrifices, challenges, and an eye-opening trip to Rwanda, Kristina Groves, 33, is both excited and nervous to skate at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. Sure, it’s on her home turf, but this could also be the Olympics where she takes her last and final lap.
The date is December 4, 2009, the rink is silent which coincides with her mind, and the black, red and grey suit that she has worn time and time again clings to every muscle. A starter says “Ready.” She crouches, left arm just above left leg, left foot pointed forward. She puts her head down, the gun rises in the air...silence.
Before that gun goes off, to be in the moment for an athlete is the most difficult thing to conquer, some athletes never get that perfect moment when all the stars align and they’re fully emerged in what they are doing. Kristina Groves, Olympic long track speed skater, has been fortunate for that perfection to happen.
This date wasn’t just another day on the ice for Groves, this day she set a personal best in the
3,000-metre race, it was her last chance to showcase her talent on home ice before the 2010 Olympics in February and it was also her 33rd birthday.
Her resume charts the Olympic path: two-time overall World Cup champion in the 1,500-metre event, 21 World Cup medals in the past three seasons, Olympic silver medalist in 1,500 metre and Team Pursuit at the 2006 Turin Olympics. “What I’ve learned over the years, is the best races I’ve had is when I’m totally emerged in what I’m doing and just being present and in the moment,” explained Groves.
Submerging yourself 100 per cent is difficult in any race but Groves knows from experience that no matter how prepared you are anything and everything can happen in a race, especially when racing in the Olympics.
“The Olympics are completely different. Anything can happen and it always does,” says Groves. “It never ceases to amaze me that someone can win nine World Cups and not even make the podium. That’s what makes the Games so exciting.”
During the upcoming Winter Olympics, the long track speed skaters will compete in Richmond, B.C. This will be Groves’ third Olympics and with each visit to the Games she improves. At 25, Groves qualified for the 2002 Salt Lake Games. She placed 20th, 8th and 10th in her long track events, which include the 1,500, 3,000 and 5,000-metre disciplines. Four years later at the 2006 Turin Olympics, a more focused and mature skater stepped onto the ice. Groves won two silver medals in the 1,500 metre and Team Pursuit races and continued to place in the Top 10 in the other three events.
With less than 100 days to go until Groves, along with hundreds of her Canadian teammates, enter the opening ceremonies in Vancouver it is certain that this is the Olympics that the 33-year-old will want to conquer and likely this is the Olympics where she will take her final lap. At the age of 33, Groves is in her 13th season on the long track national team and she is one of the veterans on the team, however she does have one teammate that is older and that is Clara Hughes who is 37.
“I sort of have always said that there is no way I’m going to go for another four years, she said. “So I think what the hell am I going to do? I have lots of ideas and certainly it’s a little bit scary to think, I’ve been doing this for some 22 to 21 years, I don’t know any other life.” -- Kristina Groves
This journey started at the age of 11 with Groves sitting in her family home in Ottawa watching then great speed skater Gaetan Boucher race at the 1988 Calgary Olympics. Boucher didn’t win a medal at the ’88 Olympics but in the previous 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo he won three medals, which at that time was a record. While watching Boucher, Groves got her first glimpse of a sport that changed her life and became her primary focus over the next two decades.
“She was little but with big dreams and she would follow them,” explained Else Groves, Kristina’s mother.
Else borrowed a pair of speed skates from a friend and took Kristina to some ice where she fell in love with the sport. Kristina signed up to train with the Ottawa Pacers, the local skating club.
“When she first started, I would say she wasn’t a natural but she was enthusiastic and enjoyed training and enjoyed working,” said Dave Morrison, one of Groves' earlier coaches with the Pacers.
Morrison is still proud of his past skater, during the 2006 Turin Olympics, Morrison, a high school music teacher, stopped his class to watch Groves’ skate her silver medal race.
“When she skated the 1,500 metres, I was teaching but we turned the television on in the classroom without the sound and when her pair came up to skate I stopped the class so I could watch,” explained Morrison. “Then I had to watch two more pairs to make sure she still stayed in a medal position. “So I don’t think I really taught much that day.”
Sport has always been a contributing factor in Groves’ life; before she pursued her passion for skating, she spent many years with her family cross-country skiing. Her parents along with her older brother, Erik, were avid skiers, yet in some way Groves had a desire for more and it couldn’t be filled in that avenue. Else Groves is currently working part-time at Carleton University in Ottawa on an academic journal, while John Groves describes himself as semi-retired.
In one aspect it was a way for Groves to rebel and go against the snowy path that was already tracked for her. She was a disciplined child that her mom described as incredibly easy-going and fun to be with. But like all children you can’t leave your schooling years without at least one phone call home from the school, and Else experienced that phone call.
“The only time I got a call home from school was when Kristina was involved in a little incident where some girls carved their initials in a bathroom stall,” explained Else. “So I took her to the store, we got some paint and I made her pay for it. Then she went back to paint over it.”
If that school only knew that those initials would later belong to the person CTV called “the most decorated skater at the World Single Distances Championships” on its website. If they knew then maybe they would have left those initials on that stall as a memento of the great skater she would become.
Those around her could not have known the success that followed Groves when she first started in the sport. As Groves continued pushing herself and setting personal goals, coaches, as well as her family, started to see her focus and determination in improving.
“The difference with Kristina is that she has worked longer and harder than anybody and I think even from the beginning she enjoyed that process of working things out and training hard,” explained Morrison who coached her from age 14-18. “I think that is why she has had the success that she has now.”
Groves focused her effort on long track and Morrison explains that this is more of a disciplined area to specialize in when comparing it to short track.
“She is participating in the discipline that is long track and it’s very much that your own efforts are rewarded, explained Morrison. “It is just you against the clock. It’s not a team sport so it attracts people who like that kind of individual effort.”
Kristina Groves skated her best time in the 3 000 metre race at the Calgary Oval on Dec. 4 2009. This day wasn't just special because she had a successful skate but also because she was celebrating her 33 birthday.
Long track speed skating is more than just a sport; it has technical aspects to it that many people who watch at home couldn’t fathom. Their tight fitted skin suits cover their entire body including their heads. These suits minimize drag, which can save precious time because in this sport, every one hundredth of a second is vital. The importance of time could not have been more obvious then in 2006 when Groves won her silver medal at the Olympics. Her time was 1:56:74, while third place finisher Ireen Wust from the Netherlands finished 1:56:90—that is a difference of 16 one-hundredths of a second.
On-ice training, off-ice training, mental training, physical training, emotional training, eating right, resting; the life of an athlete is a demanding schedule. While this has been Groves’ life for 21 years, she can sit down today and say she doesn’t feel like she missed out on anything.
“I would say I had too much fun speed skating,” Groves explained. “I would say the odd time in high school I felt like a little bit of a nerd because I couldn’t, I didn’t get caught up in all the partying…. I was kind of glad I had sport instead of that, because it is just a way more positive and constructive thing to do with your time.”
When a child shows talent in a sport, many parents get too invested, they start spending more time and energy pushing their child, the typical term is “hockey moms.”
This was not the case in the Groves’ household. Else and John stayed out of the politics and didn't travel with Groves to meets around the country. The only time Else traveled with her daughter throughout her junior skating was once when Groves was 13 and the team traveled to skate in Calgary.
“We loved winter ourselves, maybe this was a very selfish thing to do but we didn’t always want to give up a weekend, to be standing in minus 50,” explained Else. “It was possibly a little bit of that but also we did see when our son was in hockey, the parents that took on too much of a role in their child’s sport and we chose to go the other way.”
Parents could learn from what Else and John did with Groves not only because she has been extremely successful in her career but to this day after all those years she still absolutely loves it.
“It was always very much my own thing and I am actually very thankful for that now that I’m older, knowing that I did it because I loved it, not because they told me to,” explained Groves.
After skating for seven years with the Ottawa Pacers, Groves took a turn in her life and moved to Calgary, to start training at the national training facility. At the young age of 18, Groves moved by herself to not only start a new training regime but to begin her degree in Kinesiology at the University of Calgary.
Like all parents, it was difficult to see Groves leave the nest but her parents knew that her dreams were beyond the limitations Ottawa had to offer. “It was a little sad,” explained John. “Also, I felt good because I was quite confident that she was capable and prepared to be on her own even though she was only 18.”
“I sort of have always said that there is no way I’m going to go for another four years, she said. “So I think what the hell am I going to do? I have lots of ideas and certainly it’s a little bit scary to think, I’ve been doing this for some 22 to 21 years. I don’t know any other life.”
The first year of university is a challenge for most 18 years-olds; the balance of school with a brand new way of life, along with this new found freedom could get the best of many. However, those temptations didn’t tempt Groves. Much like her 11-year-old self, she continued to remain focused. She spent much of her energy on training and making a name for herself at the National Training Centre.
“I think at the time, I looked back and thought I really missed out on that first year university thing but now I don’t regret it at all,” said Groves.
She was able to balance life as an athlete and life as a student and used them to refocus her energy. “I was really glad I stayed with school the whole way through, because it gives you something else to focus on,” said Groves. “If skating isn’t going well than you have school to focus on and vice versa.”
After eight years of studying, she managed to get her kinesiology degree—another goal she had set in her mind. “I didn’t want to be 35 and just have my high school diploma. It was really important to me to continue my education.”
Following the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, where she debuted as an Olympic athlete, she knew she could do better. However Groves now looks back at various races not with regret or disappointment but with a mindset that allows her to grow and learn how to be better.
“Whether you win or lose or you fail, the happiness or disappointment that comes with that is pretty temporary,” explained Groves. “The joy or the pain, two weeks later it has just disappeared.”
Athletes compete. It is what they do; it is essentially what makes them tick. Winning and losing comes with the job and Groves recognizes that, however the most significant lessons she has learned through her life is when you do “fail” you have to be able to move on.
“In our society, there is a pretty huge fear of failure. Anytime I’ve ever failed, I’ve looked back on it and thought that was the best thing that ever happened to me because you learn something from it.
“If you just kind of fail and go back and keep beating yourself up about it, then it’s all for nothing, but if you can learn something that’s always been very important to me. I try to remember that.”
Throughout the many ups and downs of her skating career, Groves tried to keep in mind that there is a bigger world outside of her regimented schedule. Which is why she decided to devote some of her time to be an athlete ambassador for the Right to Play, an international organization that promotes sport and play to children in countries that are hit hard by poverty, war and disease. This foundation has impacted several children and is in effect in more than 23 countries and with 380 athlete ambassadors. Canada has more ambassadors than any other country with 97 athletes.
In 2007, Groves travelled to Rwanda with Right to Play. After experiencing the culture, and especially learning about the genocide, Groves came back to her world of training with a different frame of mind.
“It gives you perspective and more understanding on what’s more important in your life and what’s more important in the world,” said Groves. “On a global scale that is a really powerful thing for an athlete to have. When they go into a competition, they know life does not depend on this race.”
Teaching children to play is the universal message of this organization; striving to make the world a better place. Groves explained that basically over the half of Rwanda’s population is under the age of 15. “You also realize that there is so much hardship out there and we are privileged and we still complain about the most ridiculous things, and you think ‘Who am I to complain? I have everything I need, I’m so privileged’,” Groves said empathetically.
Being involved in organizations like Right to Play may open up many doors for Groves when she does retire giving her some sort of direction when she hangs up her skates.
“This is the first time I have [thought about retirement] because I now can see that this is going to end some day,” said Groves. “When I was 20-25, even late 20’s, I didn’t conceive that this was going to be over sometime. Now I’m very much aware I’m going to have to do something else with my life at some point.”
Groves understands post Whistler Olympics she will be at a cross roads in her life, facing the question that many people ask themselves—what’s next?
“All of a sudden now it’s three months and then it’s over and what are you going to do. I feel very fortunate that I don’t have decided right away and I probably won’t,” Groves explained. “It’s exciting and scary at the same time because I can do all kinds of stuff that I haven’t been able to do for years and it’s scary because I don’t know how to do that.”
- Written by Jeremy Nolais
Written by Jeremy Nolais
No joke, Mat Mailandt works as a professional clown. And while his business is all about making people’s sides split, the amount of exposure he has gained working as a tall, clumsy Spanish bullfighter is nothing to laugh at.
Mat Mailandt may be a big fan of the snooze button on his alarm clock; however, he isn’t exactly someone you would consider lazy.
On a routine morning, the 25-year-old springs from bed at the last minute, hops in the shower to wash off the stench from any festivities the night before and brushes his teeth until they are pearly white — after all, having a good smile is important in the circles he travels.
Next, it’s time to get dressed. For Mailandt, simply throwing on a pair of slacks and a buttoned shirt won’t cut it. Instead, he opts for a vibrant red shirt with flashy gold cuffs and candy cane-striped pants. Moving to the bathroom mirror, Mailandt hunches his hulking six-foot-three frame forward and applies some subtle blush to his cheeks and fits a shiny red nose to his face. The finishing touch to the ensemble is a sequined hat known as a montera. Yes, as far as matadors go, Mailandt’s attire would likely gain major style points, the only drawback being that he is not a real matador.
On his way out the door now, Mailandt either grabs a piece of fruit for the road or enough change to buy a coffee at the nearby 7-Eleven.
Arriving at his destination, the man that is Mat Mailandt disappears and Toro the Clown takes over. Some days Toro’s workplace is a small birthday party, others it’s a massive corporate party where he will spend the better part of six hours shaping balloons into animals for hundreds of impatient kids. Either way, this clown is on a mission, a mission to make people’s bellies ache with laughter all the while earning big bucks to do so.
Clowning is what Mailandt does for a living, simple as that. And he does it well, just take a look in his checqing account. Mailandt can earn upwards of $100 per hour to roam about as Toro and last year, between clowning and his many other theatre-related endeavours, the young actor says he took home roughly $50,000. Beyond his financial success, Mailandt’s clown creation has opened doors to numerous other job opportunities and allowed him to interact with his favourite audience of all: kids.
“When people first find out that I work as a clown, they are a little weirded out,” he says. “But I love what I do. This is without a doubt the best job I have ever had, wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
The funniest thing in all of this might be that if you told Mailandt 10 years ago he would be working today as a professional clown, “I would have said there’s no way, I don’t like clowns,” the animated Calgarian explained recently during an interview at a local coffee shop.
“The weirdest thing is that I actually hate balloons. It’s not a phobia per say but a severe distaste. There’s something about them, the latex, the squeakiness, the way they collect dust. I never really wanted to go up to a clown as a kid so it’s really funny that this is what I do for a living.”
Mailandt isn’t the only one surprised by his career path, as his father Werner Mailandt always envisioned a job in a math or science-related field for his son because he excelled in those subjects all through school.
“He was a very bright young man and had a variety of interests in different places,” said Werner Mailandt, who himself has worked in the school system for decades as a teacher and now a middle school principal. “He didn’t display the artsy nature of someone you would suspect in his business.”
Besides his competence in the classroom, athletics also began to play a major role in Mailandt’s life as he progressed through his teenage years at Calgary’s William Aberhart High School. He had discovered newfound coordination at age 14 and quickly became an obsessed teenage jock. Soccer, cross-country skiing, football, you name it, Mailandt was constantly active. Thoughts of a career in theatre were the last thing on his mind — at that point he had never even performed in a production of any kind.
That all changed in a heartbeat.
Mailandt enrolled in a Grade 11 drama class and instantly found that it allowed him an outlet to explore all corners of his bubbly personality. He also began interacting with others who held similar personality traits. Sports, science and mathematical formulas were all pushed aside in favour of character portrayal and improvisation.
“I just fell in love with it,” Mailandt says of the class, “and thought ‘Wow, this is what I want to do with the rest of my life.’”
Looking back now, Mailandt concedes that he really could have chosen any career path. His oldest sister Tara — equally bright in her own right — would spend hours each night slaving over homework assignments, ensuring every answer was perfect, while he would horse around and still pull down exceptional grades. But scientific breakthroughs or engineering marvels simply didn’t appeal to Mailandt and he instead enrolled in the drama program at the University of Calgary. He had jumped headfirst into the sprawling sea of young actors searching for their first break in the world that is Alberta theatre.
“I don’t want to say a shock but when he came to me and said ‘I am going to go into drama at university,’ I did a double-take and said ‘Why? You’re really good at math, you’re really good at chemistry, all of those things come easily to you,’ ” recalls Werner Mailandt. “And he responded with ‘It’s because this doesn’t come easily to me.’ He really wanted that challenge.”
Unlike his academic work previously, Mailandt began poring countless hours into his chosen craft on top of classes at the U of C. After being inspired by a live improvised soap opera in Edmonton known as Die-Nasty, Mailandt decided to create a similar Calgary chapter called Drunk on Mondays. It was here that he met girlfriend Jessica Robertshaw.
“I was always laughing at whatever he said, even when it was stupid,” Robertshaw recalls of her initial attraction to Mailandt. “He’s really confident, he was and is really outgoing and I was always a little more reserved.”
As a fellow drama student, Robertshaw can attest to just how tough it is to make a career out of Mailandt’s chosen profession.
“There’s not always a lot of work. For women I would say it’s even harder than it is for guys,” says Robertshaw, who serves as an artistic associate for local group Berb Theatre. “From what I have seen, for every five female actors there is one male so there’s more work for them.”
Whether it was his gender or simply a result of Mailandt’s drive and determination, the young actor got his first break in the summer of 2003 when local touring group Wagon Stage hired him on. The gig was simple, perform two to three shows based on classic children’s stories each day for children in summer camps through a co-operative program run by the U of C and City of Calgary.
“It was intense!” Mailandt says. “We basically put on 90 shows over the course of two months plus rehearsals.”
Mailandt admits that he “bombed” many times early on in front his young, yet highly critical audience during his time with Wagon Stage. He quickly discovered that having grass and cookies thrown at him from frustrated audience members often came with the territory.
“I never thought I would work with kids when I first started out. It all kind of hit me by surprise,” Mailandt. “I realized how great it is performing for kids because kids are such an honest audience. If they don’t like what you’re doing they will get up and go.
“It’s not like an adult audience, you really have to be on your game.”
While filming a television promo for Wagon Stage at the crack of dawn one morning, Mailandt was noticed by a talent scout from a company called Just Kidding. He asked him to come in for a training seminar where important fundamentals of clowning, such as a proper wardrobe development and how to twist balloon animals, were taught.
“I was skeptical at first,” Mailandt says. “Here are these people willing to pay you tons of money to dress up and make balloon animals. I was thinking ‘is this some kind of scam?’ "
But Just Kidding turned out to be totally legitimate and after a few months Mailandt became a regular with the company. For his efforts, the young impersonator was paid an initial rate of $85 per hour minimum, not bad for an amateur clown.
Mailandt’s father chuckles when recalling the moment he first learned about his son being employed as a clown.
“We always joke that his best paying gig is his clowning thing and that is strange, no question,” Werner Mailandt said.
“It’s led to so many other things. It’s not just about being a clown. . . I think what it’s done more than just put money in his pocket is give him exposure and allow him to be a different character in different places. I think that really strengthens him as an actor and a performer.”
In essence, Mailandt had made it. He had succeeded where many of his peers were struggling. Just Kidding had provided him with not only a flexible job that would help pay the bills — most notably his costly university tuition.
Robertshaw said that Mailandt is extremely fortunate to be making 100 per cent of his living from performing. The 22-year-old works a public relations job in the oil and gas industry by day to make ends meet and admittedly is a little jealous that her boyfriend is parading around as a clown while she sits behind a desk.
“I think Mat is inherently sort of lucky, stuff just falls into his lap at times,” she says. “He has found this amazing job and he sort of fell into it right out of school.”
Realizing his good fortune, Mailandt wasn’t about to let his position with Just Kidding go to waste and he began developing a suitable back-story and costume for Toro as part of his work in a performer creations class. A quick peruse through Toro’s biography and it’s easy to see numerous comparisons between the matador character and his creator. For one, Toro comes from a long line of successful matadors and was expected to follow in the family footsteps but instead chose to become a clown because he lacked the proper coordination.
As for Toro’s costume, Mailandt says his intention was to keep his bullfighting uniform relatively simple, something that wouldn’t terrify kids and is easy to slip in and out of.
“He’s a very simple, European-style clown,” Mailandt says. “Look, I am big guy with a beard and that’s intimidating to kids. I didn’t want to go too ‘clown’ with my costume. I make it very apparent that there is a real person underneath.”
With Toro’s character fully developed, Mailandt began testing the limits of creation. He soon found that the job description for each clowning gig was just as varied as the venue.
Mailandt says he enjoys most being hired on as a “rover” for bigger events like the Calgary Stampede, where he spends the day walking amongst thousands of attendees and entertaining people waiting in lines.
“That’s when I really get to explore Toro’s character and act in a spontaneous way. Anything’s game,” Mailandt says.
Other jobs are simpler. Larger functions will often bring on clowns purely for their balloon twisting talents — an endurance test that can last up to six hours and test the patience of even the most experienced jokesters.
“My hands pretty much want to fall off after that,” he says. “At this point, I can probably make more than 100 different balloon animals. I can do a mean dragon, and a motorcycle but those take more time. When working I bigger line I try to keep it to about one minute per balloon. I can make a pig, a cool penguin, a tiger and a monkey climbing up a palm tree — that one is always a big hit. With enough time I can pretty much make anything.”
Whether it was his colourful costume, compelling back-story or uncanny artistry with balloons, Mailandt soon became a hit with kids; he had a found a facet of the theatre industry that seemed to hold numerous opportunities. In 2004, Mailandt expanded his work from performing for kids to working with them when he was hired as an instructor by Calgary Young People’s Theatre. A local company founded in 1992, CYPT intends to offer children basic theatre education and the means to explore the performing arts and advance their creativity. The CYPT’s advanced programs will even see children put on productions in professional local theatres. Needless to say, Mailandt had found a second job that he could get onboard with.
“Calgary Young People’s Theatre gave me the chance to interact with kids on a more personal level,” Mailandt says. “Men in our society aren’t really allowed to interact with kids because there have been a lot of bad scenarios. Parents really want to protect their kids. I didn’t even hug a kid until a few years of doing children’s theatre.
“What’s great is I can sit down with an eight-year-old and have a very satisfying conversation. Maybe that speaks to my immaturity but all I know is I enjoy being around them and helping them.”
After being with the CYPT for roughly a year, Mailandt watched the organizational structure of the company he loved crumbled. The artistic director and a number of board members resigned, leaving CYPT with no leader and an uncertain future. After some convincing from his peers, Mailandt, just 21 at the time, decided to throw his hat into the ring for director. He won and took over and became the youngest director in the company’s history.
“Everything changed, I took it (CYPT) from the ground up basically,” Mailandt says.
James Dugan, a former professor of Mailandt’s at the U of C, wasn’t surprised to hear to hear the news that his young, gifted student was now running a respected local company.
“He sets his mind on something and he goes after it,” Dugan says. “His personality is quite delightful. He’s very friendly, very outgoing. He talks to everyone and is interested in everything.”
It was for these reasons that the veteran professor, who has taught in some capacity for 27 years at the U of C, turned to Mailandt in 2006 when needed instructors for a summer drama camp in Silverton, B.C. Now, the Calgary actor makes the trek west every summer and Dugan says his younger children always look forward to his presence.
Annual drama camps, routine clowning gigs and the responsibilities that come with running a theatre education company were still not enough to satisfy Mailandt, as he also began performing with local acting troupe The Improv Guild. He can now be seen flying by the seat of his pants onstage at the Comedy Cave most Friday nights as an opening act for some of the biggest comedians to trek through town. As part of his work with The Improv Guild, Mailandt also took charge of efforts to create the Calgary International Improv Festival in 2008. When asked how he finds time to relax, the committed artist remains quite modest.
“I have just always been a busy guy and still am,” he says. “I am one of those people that likes to fill time with a lot of different work things, different social things.”
His father, Werner, couldn’t be happier now with the career path his son has chosen and takes pride in offering him advice when the two meet up for their weekly ritual of watching the NFL’s Chicago Bears play on TV.
“I basically tell him to keep his hands in as many different things as possible,” Werner says. “Figuring out how to make ends meet as an artist is a hard thing. He’s doing what makes him happy and from a parent’s perspective that’s really all you can ask for.
Looking forward, it seems Calgary’s acting scene is seemingly not enough to contain Mailandt’s aspirations, as he plans to move with Robertshaw to Berlin next year and work with his uncle, a theatre producer in the area.
“I have never lived anywhere outside of Calgary,” Mailandt says. “I think it’s the next step for me to live somewhere else and see Europe and then after that I don’t know because I don’t plan that far ahead.
“One day I want a wife and kids and a house somewhere in Canada but that’s down the road. Even planning a year ahead for me is quite a bit. I am very much about living in the moment. I try to enjoy everything that I am doing. I try to find a balance in my life, I work hard and I play hard.”
As for right now, Mailandt will continue to get up in the morning, dress up in his finest bullfighting attire and transform into his highly sought alter-ego Toro. After all, in the life he has chosen to lead there is always plenty of clowning around to do.
- Written by Kaila Sept
Written by Kaila Sept
One event took Nadine Dumas from accountant to world class fitness model and competitor. The 28-year-old personal trainer is living life on her own terms.
It’s 9 a.m. Starbucks is filled with coffee junkies, coming in for their jolt of caffeine. Nadine Dumas walks up to the table, dressed in black sweat pants and a gray sweater, her hair loosely tied back and she has no makeup on. She is 5’8’ with dark brown hair, and even though she’s wearing layers due to the chilly Calgary winter, you can tell by her slim figure that this woman has toned and defined her body to perfection. Although she can drink regular coffee while dieting, she declines. She is on a strict eating schedule for her next competition. We sit at a table in the corner; ready to talk about everything she does for a living, which proves to be a long list. She has suffered ups and downs in life, like everyone else, but lives by her motto to ‘ride the wave, and things will always fall into place.’ This positive thinking has worked in her favour because now she is one of the top fitness competitors in Canada.
Born on May 2nd, 1981 in Red Deer, Alta., Dumas describes herself a very shy child. The older of two (her sister Jessica is 25), her parents divorced when she was seven. She decided at 16 to apply for a job at BDO Dunwoody LLP, an accounting firm in Red Deer. Her goal was to work her way to the top of the corporate ladder in accounting.
Cherry Smillie has been a friend of Dumas’ since they were in junior high together. She says that Dumas was always there if someone needed a good laugh.
“Growing up with Nadine was hilarious, we had a lot of silly times involving a lot of laughter,” Smillie said. “We chased and were chased by a lot of boys too, so that always added a little fun and intrigue."
Smillie said that growing up, Dumas was never very aware about the way she looked.
“She has always been beautiful, but she was kind of oblivious of how good looking her body was,” Smillie said.
Dumas attended Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High in Red Deer and decided that she wanted to go to college and get a degree in business. Everything was running smoothly for Dumas, that is until her life took an unexpected turn at the age of 24.
“I got dumped after a five year relationship,” Dumas said, “I felt like I needed to do something for myself, get out of my comfort zone. I guess I was a little lost because I gave everything to that relationship and kind of lost myself in the process.”
Dumas’ boss referred her to a job working as a controller for a TV station in the Cayman Islands. She gladly took it, and decided to make the big move.
Dumas went through a series of phone interviews with the company in the Cayman Islands. They put her through HIV testing, a medical background check and x-rays.
“It’s very strict down there,” Dumas said. “Once they decided to hire me, I was granted a permit for one year to work.”
On October 15, 2005, she arrived in the Cayman Islands.
Dumas’ mother, Lorraine Miller, wasn’t sure how to feel. “I had mixed emotions about her leaving,” said Miller. “I was more than happy to see her succeed in accounting, and felt bad for the reason that she left.”
When Dumas arrived in the Cayman Islands, she says it was difficult to get used to. “I was so shy and I really needed direction,” says Dumas. “It was hard because I moved there not knowing anyone. I was gaining weight, was so stressed out, and couldn’t get a handle on things.”
One day Dumas was watching TV at her apartment and she happened to turn to the Caribbean Grand Prix, a bodybuilding competition held on the island.
“Right after seeing it I thought ‘I can do that.’ I decided that for four months I would diet and train, I probably had never had never been over 140 pounds and didn’t have a lot of muscle, so someone trained me, and then I competed in my first show in 2006.”
She placed third out of 25 in that show, and received a lot of negative feedback from the people around her and in the business.
Dumas believes that taking control of your body is important, especially for people who have been through a rough time in their life, physically or emotionally.
“They just said ‘you’re too small, you can’t do this, you need to put on a lot more muscle, and you’re too tall.” Dumas said, “so I kind of got that ‘screw you’ attitude and for nine months. I trained, dieted and went to the gym. About nine months later I competed and won the show.”
Dumas’ friend Cherry Smillie said she was shocked that Dumas decided to compete.
“I didn’t even know she was truly interested,” Smillie said. “Honestly we were not the most active teenagers; we walked a lot because we didn't have a car. We danced but that was recreational.”
This experience launched Dumas into the world of fitness competition. She is a specialist in the Best Body category, which awards points for appearance, symmetry, muscle tone, poise, presence, and the swimsuit look. She adopts a strict diet, wears a bikini on stage (something she never thought she had the confidence to do. Judges award a score.
Dumas has successfully made her way up in both fitness competition and personal training. She is one of the top competitors in Canada, and a six-time model for fitness magazines like Vex and Inside Fitness Canada. She also holds workshops for people wanting to compete, helping them with posing and what they should do in order to win. Dumas believes that taking control of your body is important, especially for people who have been through a rough time in their life, physically or emotionally. She also believes the goal setting that comes with fitness competing helps people feel good about themselves. Fitness competition and training have brought her out of her shell and helped with confidence that she once lacked.
“I love to see what I can do to change how I look just through training and diet,” Dumas said. “It keeps me on a schedule and I live for structure.”
Fitness competition is growing in popularity. Shows are held all over the world, and there are usually around 25 people competing at a time. The different types of shows include: bodybuilding, which aims for a muscular look; figure, which is more of a lean muscle, feminine look; swimsuit modeling, and best body.
Dumas explains that when a woman walks off the stage a winner, she can win a few different things. Depending on the type of competition, she can win a pro-card, meaning they have reached professional status in the industry. They can also win a certain amount of money, and have the chance to be in magazines.
“Some women I work with, all their mind is set on is getting their face in a magazine and I am like give me a break, it’s a freakin’ magazine,” Dumas said. “You need to find your niche somewhere else. Not only do I compete and get in magazines but I also give back and I try and help other people.”
Dumas advises anyone who wants to compete to do it for the right reasons.
“A lot of women do it because they are going through some sort of life change, they have had children, their husband has left them, they’ve lost a ton of weight from emotional issues,” Dumas said. “I view it more as giving someone the opportunity for 12 weeks at least to concentrate on them and only them.”
In 2007, at the age of 26, Dumas decided to come back to Canada and finish her degree in accounting, but life seemed to be pulling her in a different direction.
“I came home and I was miserable. I didn’t want to do accounting anymore, so I put it all on the backburner and decided to become a personal trainer.”
Dumas says that personal training was so closely related to fitness competition that she thought it would be a good fit for her. She loved competing and training, and wanted to start using her passion to help others.
The decision to follow her new dream wasn’t something that was easily accepted by her family at first.
“I come from an army family where education was really important and we didn’t do personal training as a job, or view it as important,” Dumas said. “My family was really not happy that I was doing it.”
“Everything changed the day my grandparents saw me in my first magazine,” Dumas said. “Now, they go to the store and buy the magazines and they stand at the checkout counter and they tell the cashier who I am and show them pictures and they are really proud of me.”
Dumas’ mother Lorraine [Miller] is happy that her daughter is doing something she loves so much.
“They just said ‘you’re too small, you can’t do this, you need to put on a lot more muscle, and you’re too tall.” Dumas said, “so I kind of got that ‘screw you’ attitude and for nine months. I trained, dieted and went to the gym. About nine months later I competed and won the show.”
“I was more than happy to see her succeed,” Miller said. “I was very proud when I saw her compete for the first time. I flew down to Texas to see her and she was so calm, cool and collected. She knew what she had to do.”
Dumas says that her ambitions have changed drastically.
“I had wanted to be at the top of the corporate ladder, making a lot of money, working behind a desk, up there with all of the big wigs, and now, I only want to do what makes me happy,” Dumas said. “Now I work long hours but with a huge smile on my face. I want to change people’s life and I didn’t feel like I could when I was in accounting.”
Eventually, she left Red Deer and moved to Calgary, Alta. to finish up her degree in accounting in 2007, through SAIT and Athabasca University. She has also received her personal training, wellness and nutrition coaching certificates.
Although Dumas didn’t pursue accounting as a career, she has found a way to put her degree to good use. Right now she is working at The Edge School for Athletes in Calgary, a private school near Springbank. “I make sure that parents are making their payments and that their kids are coming in, schedules are done, and that there is no conflict of schedules.”
She also works as a personal trainer. Walking into Only Women’s Fitness, the gym in Calgary where Dumas currently trains, you can spot her right away. Rushing around the gym, getting equipment ready for her next client and taking a few minutes to chat with the people she works around. Many of the members pick her out of the crowd and comment on her looks. You would never guess that she was once shy and somewhat self conscious of herself.
Dumas has been training clients for almost three years. She says she loves learning about people and finding out why they are the way they are.
“I don’t like to promote my lifestyle on others,” says Dumas. “I believe that you only have one life to live, and you have to take care of yourself.”
Dumas says that her days typically begin at 4 a.m. and last until 11 p.m. She wakes up, and will eat right away, following the rules of her diet, which helps lower her body fat, and creates lean muscle for her next show. Her morning meal usually consists of oatmeal, eggs and a small source of fat, which sometimes comes in the form of liquid, which she puts into the food she is eating. She must eat every three hours, and the rest of the day consists of veggies and chicken for dinner, lunch and snacks. If she does add any carbohydrates to her diet, it’s usually sweet potatoes and brown rice. She then packs her food for the rest of the day and heads out to see her first client at 5:30 a.m.
“Twelve weeks before a show I start a strict diet and hard core training, focusing on myself” Dumas said. “The other nine months out of the year I try to eat clean but I still try to enjoy life a little bit.”
Janna Ball, Dumas’ roommate of a year and a half, said that although the dieting and competing doesn’t affect Dumas too badly, sometimes it can make her a little spacey.
“It doesn’t make her irritable, but the closer she gets to a show, the ‘stupider’ she gets,” Ball said. “She forgets things easily and tends to be sort of spaced out.”
Dumas said that training for competition takes a toll on her social life, but she has good friends who understand. She says it’s important to have a good support system.
“I have dated people that are in the industry and that are not in the industry,” Dumas said. “For ones that are not in the industry my experience is that they think it’s pretty cool dating a girl that is a 'fitness chick’ and a model, but they do not take into consideration that you are constantly dieting, have to be working out regularly. Attending social functions can be quite tough.”
Dumas said that she has dated people involved in the industry, but thinks it can be just as difficult to maintain a relationship that way.
“It sometimes becomes a competition amongst each other and can cause some harsh feelings,” Dumas said. “Either way it is a passion that I have and would love to find someone that just supports me in what I do no matter if they are in the industry or not, to me it doesn't matter.”
Dumas said that the experience before she left Red Deer allowed her to have more freedom to figure out what she wanted, and where she wanted to be.
Dumas eventually decided she wanted to help other women who wanted to compete. She joined her current business partner, Mat Park, in creating International Body Building Federation Canada, which is for people who compete and are drug free.
Park and Dumas bring in professionals that use polygraph tests on each contestant to be sure they are following the rules.
Mat Park has been in business with Dumas for two years, working for INBF.
“There are no politics, the judging panel is totally fair, and when the show is complete, everyone is happy,” Park said. “The biggest thing is fairness and integrity for us.”
Dumas contacted Park by e-mail, and they decided to work on the business together.
“She’s a go-getter,” Park said of Dumas. “Our vision is very similar, and we both have big aspirations and love helping people. INBF wouldn’t be where it is without the help of Nadine.”
Park has been in the fitness industry for 14 years, and has been competing for three years. He says a show usually consists of 14 to 20 weeks of training, dieting, and doing cardio. Then, you practice posing and plan for the show; it’s a 24-hour job for the contestants. Five women are compared at a time, and are usually on stage for about a minute by themselves to be judged.
Dumas finds it very rewarding to see people walk off the stage with smiles on their faces.
“People walk off stage and are so happy, and so thankful for what we do, it’s great,” Dumas said. “We pay attention, go out of our way to help them out with whatever they need.”
Dumas also heads a variety of different workshops, including Perfect Presentations, which helps the competitors with their posing for the stage, and Life after Competing, where she helps the contestants keep their eating habits and emotional issues under control after a show.
“Right after you’re done a show you incorporate things back into your diet, so you can tend to go overboard very easily,” Dumas said. “You have a really tough time, and that’s why I created a life after competing seminar, because it teaches girls how to cope. I went through it and I didn’t know what the hell to do with myself because I was bloated, and didn’t have control of my eating. So I am helping them create a goal for their off season.”
Rozanne Pyper, who is currently training to compete, is getting all the help she can from Dumas.
“Nadine is really thoughtful and kind, and because of that she has given me more confidence,” Pyper said. “I have been to all of her workshops, because I think if you want to learn and be your best, you have to go to someone who knows their stuff.”
“She really believed that I had what it takes to compete, and this experience [going to New York City to compete] would have never happened if it weren’t for her.” Pyper said.
Dumas has competed in nine shows in total and has been on the cover of two magazines. She is living the life of a model, but says that even though it seems glamorous to have your picture taken and your hair and makeup done for you, it can be grueling some days.
“We’ll just say I love it,” Dumas said. “But it’s so tiring, it’s sometimes like six hours of shooting, and it’s a bunch of hurrying up and then waiting. It is an amazing opportunity, but also a lengthy process as well.”
Dumas could be labeled a workaholic–with her long hours, and different jobs to do-but she does occasionally take some time out for herself.
“I do go on vacation, but not very often,” says Dumas. “When I am in off season I still try and eat good portions of food, and sometimes I will allow myself to pig out on things like pizza.”
“They think it’s pretty cool dating a girl that is a 'fitness chick’ and a model, but they do not take into consideration that you are constantly dieting, have to be working out regularly. Attending social functions can be quite tough.”
In her spare time, Dumas says she loves shopping and reading. She will also do some travelling on her holidays, usually to places like Florida.
When Dumas is up on stage, she walks like a pro. She stands tall and doesn’t falter, acting as if the four inch heels she is wearing are merely running shoes. Her confidence shines through as she flashes a smile to the judges. She moves in the correct way, and poses in different ways to accentuate each muscle she has worked so hard to tone. She automatically wins them over with her charisma, and the nine months of hard work and dieting all the sudden pay off. The self-conscious girl from Red Deer disappears, and the person she has become shows us what she’s got.
- Written by Michelle Matthews
Written by Michelle Matthews
Uncovering a hidden passion for art, a homeless cowboy gives back to the shelter that helped put the paintbrush in his hand
Warm, safe, dry, a full tank of gas. My Saturn is a haven. Outside the blustery wind blows trees from side to side. Mother Nature is showing off and Calgary’s homeless have to watch. I’m deliberating whether to get out of my car and join the show or cancel my interview because it’s so cold and windy that even the traffic lights are swaying dangerously above the rush hour traffic. Crap, I see Wyatt Heston walking my way. I turn my car off and with it the sound of Mariah Carey’s melodious voice. We shake hands. Unexpectedly, his hand is warm and so is his smile as he laughs and teases me about the goose bumps on my arms. “I thought you were a Canadian,” he says, and I reply, “Only according to my passport.”
I suggest we head to the TransAlta office building across the street that I am positive is heated. Heston is reluctant. He says he isn’t welcome in there but I reassure him it’s fine and hope I'm right. We’ve been sitting on the comfy lobby chairs for about 10 minutes and so far nobody has bothered us. The last thing I want to do is humiliate him. Heston is homeless but doesn’t let it define him. He thinks of himself as a real cowboy who grew up on a 23-acre Wyoming cattle ranch with 14 brothers and sisters. His authentic black cowboy hat, red, white and blue collared shirt reflect his cowboy nature.
We talk and he says he was born on July 4, 1956 to the crackling sounds of fireworks at his family’s ranch. His path to Calgary is a bit unclear, but abruptly ended on Calgary streets. His eyes widen as he tells me about a woman he ran into on 8th Avenue earlier that morning who said, “Hey, didn’t you get the memo, Stampede was over in July,” to which he replied, “Ma’am, my Stampede lasts 24/7.”
Heston is a homeless cowboy, a recovering alcoholic and a victim of lung cancer. He represents one of Calgary’s chronic 4,000 homeless, mainly men who live on the streets during the day and in shelters at night. What distinguishes him is a love for painting, and that his art hangs in the collections of at least two Calgarians. He discovered painting at The Mustard Seed, a non-profit homeless organization dedicated to helping men and women living on Calgary’s streets. In the face of all it: the cold, the wind, the hard grey mats at night, he retains hope fuelled by his passion for making art.
I met Heston in May of 2009 when I began a summer internship in the communications department at The Mustard Seed. At this point Heston had been painting for almost six months and it was all he could talk about. I’ll never forget meeting him because my experience interacting with the homeless was limited. My first conversation with Heston lasted for almost an hour, of which he did all the talking. As I wandered back to my office I remember thinking to myself, "this guy loves art more than any art student or art teacher I have ever met." Over the next few months Heston would often come to my office to chat and would stay until my boss chased him away. He told me all sorts of stories about his family ranch back in Wyoming, and of course his latest piece of art. Heston is an enigma; both to me, to his caseworkers and probably to his family. Sometimes it’s hard to tell truth from tale but as Heston’s art is evidence of a program that’s helping.
The arts program began in 2007 when it hired Hannah Poon, a graduate from the University of Calgary. “When people come here they get to express themselves and be creative without any judgment and for a lot of them it’s very therapeutic,” Poon says.
The Mustard Seed has a small art studio located in the basement of its main office building and it is open to anyone who is part of a Mustard Seed program. Poon recalls the first time she laid eyes on Heston, “He had this black cowboy hat on, and a big studded cowboy belt that you couldn’t miss and he called me ma’am which I thought was hilarious because he’s like 20 years older than me.”
Poon continues, “When Wyatt came to his first art class last year he was withdrawn and stubborn and I had a hard time reaching him but since then it’s like he’s turned into a different person and I think partly it’s because he found something that he’s passionate about.”
In June of last year, Heston and a few others at The Mustard Seed showcased their artwork at Market Collective, an art studio in Kensington that promotes new artists. Heston volunteered to help Poon organize the event and even helped raise funds to rent a space through a barbeque hosted at The Mustard Seed. Heston says, “This was my chance to show people what I could do and I have to admit I was kinda nervous. . . thought people might walk right by to the better artists but a lot of people stopped to talk to me about my work and I even sold two pieces and made $365,” he adds with a proud smile. “I had more money in my pocket than I had in like five years.” Then he did something remarkable: He counted out $100 and gave it back to Mustard Seed art program.
The buyer of Heston’s art? Ian McLaren, a 25-year-old roofer with a secret passion for art. McLaren says, “I’ve always loved art and I think the homeless art movement is so cool because they paint with more emotion and passion than most professionals.” He describes the painting he purchased as rich, full of texture with warm red and orange tones, The perfect Canadian fall. McLaren says one of the best parts was being able to meet Heston and talk to him about what the painting meant to him. Heston told McLaren he loves the fall because it represents the end of long and hard season on his ranch back home and seeing the leaves turn red brings him a sort of satisfaction and happiness. McLaren says, “I can relate to that because being roofers we usually work our butts off while it’s warm and once things start to cool down you know the busy streak is coming to an end.”
Heston spends between 20 and 30 hours a week in the art studio but he says this isn’t enough. “I crave art like I used to crave whiskey and my dream is to have my own art studio someday so I can paint whenever I feel like it.” I asked Heston if I could watch him paint one day I thought he was going to burst with happiness. “Listen here li’l lady, if there’s one thing I love it’s showing off in the studio. I’ll even show you how I mix my own paint.”
When I arrived at The Mustard Seed for a little painting session with Heston he was waiting outside for me and, as usual, he looked like he just walked off the set of an old western film. His says his mother named him for the famous cowboy Wyatt Earp. “I think she had high hopes that I’d become a stunt rider with a name like that,” he says while rolling his eyes. “But God had other plans for me: hospital beds and cement pavements.” A full-grown beard and mustache mock his hidden bald head, “Chemo works in mysterious ways,” he adds with a chuckle.
Last spring, Heston found out that he had lung cancer. His doctor told him it was likely caused by a combination of exposure to asbestos when he worked at a coal mill and as a young teen smoking. We make our way into the basement of The Mustard Seed where the art studio is. The room is well lit and there are several people sitting in front of half painted canvases. Heston shows me the piece he has been working on for the last week, it’s his first abstract and he named it Slow Release. The paint is still wet from the day before. The main feature on the canvas is a human eye with a steam of teardrops cascading down until the white tears get lost in a small blue stream. Next to the stream stands a silhouette of a cowboy with his hat tipped downwards. I ask him what the painting represents and he says, “This painting cries the tears I don’t have left, because to cry you’re taking your bodies energy and releasing it naturally instead of using violence or a bad habit, and well, the cowboy, that’s how everyone sees me, a dark silhouette.”
According to the City of Calgary, 4,060 people were believed to be absolutely homeless on May 14 in 2008 – 3,195 were staying in facilities, 296 were counted by service agencies and an estimated 569 people were living on the streets. This represents an overall growth of 18 per cent of the homeless population since 2006. Heston falls somewhere between the visible homeless living out on the streets and the demographic seeking refuge in a facility such as The Mustard Seed shelter.
It’s unclear where his family fits into the picture. Heston finished his first round of chemo in late November and is currently waiting for the results. Like anyone he has his bad days and even though he’s pondered following the big red exit sign, hope, his passion for art and his new family on the street reel him back in every time. Heston and I are waiting to cross the street to sit at a coffee shop to continue our interview when he spots his friend Tim walking out of The Mustard Seed. He has mentioned him before but this is the first time we have met. Tim is from the Muskowekwan First Nation Tribe in Saskatchewan and has been homeless since he was 15 years-old, and is now 52. His tall frame complements his neat long black ponytail and his smile sports a set of teeth that look like they haven’t ever seen a dentist.
Heston introduces us as we wait to cross the street and when it’s our turn to go Tim looks at Heston and says with a smile, “And white man says we can walk.” I ask Tim what he and Heston do when they hang out and he says, “You know, normal stuff, hang out, chat, drink coffee, talk about the future sometimes, Wyatt’s art.” Like Heston, Tim struggles with alcoholism and although they don’t like to talk about it, their separate experiences seem to have brought them together.
Heston doesn’t talk much about what living in a shelter is like and I’m curious about how he spends his nights because he always looks so tired. He says the bags under his eyes are permanent and the chemo isn’t helping but he isn’t a big fan of shelter life because he doesn’t like anyone telling him when he can sleep, eat and shower. He tells me he falls asleep each night to the sound of people crying or talking to themselves or worse, coming down from last night’s drug binge.
I suggest we go to the shelter together later in the week so I can check out the place he so often complains about. We say our goodbyes and decide to meet on Thursday. I run back to the safety of my car and pump the volume. Mariah Carey’s voice rocks my Saturn and as I’m driving away I see Heston huddled under a stairwell with Tim trying to escape the wind. What a life. What a way to live. I feel pretty lucky driving away in my warm car to my warm house. I’m kind of nervous about Thursday but I know it’ll be worth it.
When Thursday arrives the snow is falling and it’s really cold when I get inside my car. I wonder what it would be like to sleep outside on a night like tonight. How long would it take for my hands and feet to freeze?
I arrive at The Mustard Seed shelter just after 8 p.m. and am greeted by an empty and quiet front hallway. There is no colour, and not a single painting decorating the walls. A sad-looking goldfish in a small tank rests a little too close to the edge of a small coffee table and I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to call a place like this home. I recognize the woman behind the desk from my internship in the summer and she gives me directions to the food hall. When I arrive I scan the crowded tables and spot Heston in the far corner. He’s sitting with Tim. We talk briefly about an upcoming interview Tim has with a potential employer from a furniture warehouse for a mover’s position. Then Heston asks, “You still wanna see where I sleep?”
We make our way across the dining hall and into a large area. Grey floors and high ceilings, it looks similar to an auditorium. Heston spots some friends of his and he introduces me. We get to talking and I find out that Marcy and Ray have been married for a year. I think they’re in their thirties but they could be younger. I can tell the street life has taken a toll on them. Their faces look worn and Marcy’s cheeks are sunken and have holes in them. A telling side-effect of a serious meth habit. I ask them where they sleep and Marcy explains that men and women have separate sleeping areas even if you’re married.
Heston leads the way to the mat he was assigned to when he arrived at the shelter that afternoon. The homeless are assigned a new mat number every night, maybe so people don’t get too comfortable, but I’m not sure. His mat, like all the others, is grey and small, smaller than a single bed. It’s even smaller than the children’s single beds that you see at IKEA.
I lay down on it and notice how hard it is and how the plastic material sticks to my skin and makes noises when I move. My feet are about two inches from falling off which means Heston probably has to sleep curled up unless he wants his feet to dangle over the edge. The mat is so narrow that I can’t roll over. Blankets aren’t provided but most people have one stored in their property bins that they’re allowed to leave at the shelter. Heston doesn’t have a blanket because he likes to use his long black winter coat but I wonder if he’s just saying that because he doesn’t have one.
I close my eyes for a second and try to imagine what it would be like to sleep there every night, a stranger on either side of me and nowhere to go when I wake up in the morning. It’s a scary thought and I know I’ll never really understand what it’s like to have nowhere to go and nobody to turn to but this is giving me a small idea as to how alone and scared someone might feel. Heston walks me out to my car and says, “So what do you think of my house?”