Canada GAA goes coast to coast
By John Harrington
Running a county board is a considerable undertaking regardless of your location on the globe, but lets take a moment to consider the logistical challenges facing our friends in Canada GAA.
Their most western club is Van Isle Rovers on Vancouver Island, and their most eastern is PEI Celts on Prince Edward Island.
Were you of the mind to hop in your car and travel from one to another, you’d clock up 5,700 miles on the odometer and pass through four time zones.
Promoting Gaelic Games across such a sprawling country poses some obvious operational hurdles, but that hasn’t stopped Canada GAA going from strength to strength in recent years.
They sent eight teams to the 2019 World Games, and the number of GAA clubs in the country is increasing at a steady pace.
“We have 28 clubs now, coast to coast, and there has been significant growth in recent years, especially in Vancouver where Gaelic Games has just exploded,” says Canada GAA Treasurer, Kerry Mortimer.
“We probably have around 2,000 people playing Gaelic Games at an adult level and around 500 at youth level.
“It’s quite regionally based in terms of the background of those playing. Right now in Vancouver it’s mainly Irish expats because it has become a really hot destination for young Irish people in the same way that Australia once was.
“Another new club, St. Finian’s, were set up there last year and at their first training session they had 75 players and they were all Irish.
“You’d also have a lot of Irish in Toronto whereas in my own club Ottawa Gaels and in places like Montreal and Calgary it would be mostly native Canadians.
“But even in Vancouver, although they have really big numbers of expats, they also want to develop grassroots in their area because they realise with Covid that travel can be restricted so they want to build up the native population of participants.
“So as much as they're growing on the expat side, they also see the importance of engaging with the native population to ensure the long-term health of their clubs.”
Canada is a country of almost 10 million square kilometres. So when you have 28 GAA clubs that span the breadth of the nation, then organising matches and tournaments on a regional basis is a logistical necessity.
“The country is split into three divisions,” explains Mortimer. “The Western Division is due west from Manitoba. So that would include Calgary and Vancouver. Then Toronto has its own division and then the Eastern division is due east from Ottawa.
“Toronto has its own League and Championship but our club Ottawa Gaels has always played in the Toronto League.
“It's a four and a half hour drive so on a Sunday we'll drive for four and a half hours, play a game, and drive back.
“You see a real dedication from people here to play games in terms of the distance they're willing to travel at the weekend.
“Ottawa, Montreal, and the Atlantic provinces would have an Eastern Canadian Championships, a one-day tournament at a different club each time.
“In the west it's something similar in that they have a two-day tournament as a championship and clubs would travel in for that.
“What we had planned for 2020 but had to cancel because of Covid-19 was our first Canadian National Championship. That was to be in Toronto where you would have clubs from across the country travelling in.
“We’re hoping to have it in September this year instead, but will make a final call on that in April depending on what the Covid-19 outlook is by then.”
Mortimer’s own involvement in the GAA is fairly representative of how many native Canadians with little previous knowledge of Gaelic Football and Hurling suddenly fell in love with the sports after discovering them.
She was actually born in Antrim herself but moved to Canada at the of four and didn’t play Gaelic Games until she was 29 and had relocated to Ottawa from Vancouver.
“I had played soccer all my life and when I moved to Ottawa I joined a soccer team and there was an Irish girl on the team who played Gaelic Football with Ottawa Gaels,” says Mortimer.
“She heard my maiden name, Kerry McAuley, so she thought, "My goodness, she must be Irish!"
“So she told me I had to try Gaelic Football and I was like, "Alright!" I was 29 when I started playing and I have never looked back. I was hooked from the beginning and here we are over 20 years later.”
Sport is big in Canada, and Mortimer believes the country is fertile ground for the growth of Gaelic Games because the skill-set required to play them is similar to what many Canadians would have already developed playing other sports.
“One of our main strategies is to target locals who are already interested in sport,” she says.
“For anyone who has played soccer it's an easy transition to Gaelic football.
“And with Camogie, there's a good crossover from Ice Hockey. The origin of Ice Hockey has been traced to Irish immigrants who played hurling in Nova Scotia in the 1800s. So I think there's even more opportunity for hurling and camogie to grow if we can introduce the game to hockey kids.
“There's also a sport that a lot of girls in Canada play called Ringette and it's a stick and ice sport. So if we could introduce hurling and camogie to those kids, I think there would be a good crossover.”
The plan is to fuel the next growth of Gaelic Games in Canada by focusing on youth development.
This has already been done with much success in a number of clubs, but Mortimer believes there’s great scope for further growth.
“Our youth development is a little bit regional as well,” she says. “In our own club in Ottawa it's a huge focus for us.
“In fact, our youth programme is bigger than our senior programme to the point where about five years ago we started bringing over a coaching and development officer in Spring who would go into schools and teach it as part of the curriculum.
“We didn't have any funding for that position but we felt it was really important so we did a lot of fund-raising to pay for it ourselves.
“Then, during the summer we have youth programmes and take teams down to the Contintental Youth Championships which is kind of like the Feile in Ireland except it takes place in North America and is the largest Gaelic Games tournament outside of Ireland.
“There are other clubs in Canada like the Toronto Chieftains also doing really good work with youth but I think there’s a great opportunity for us to do even more.
“Our issue would be that we don't have any funded Games Promotion Officers like they would in the USA which allows them to have a real focus on youth development. If we had that here, it would be a great help to us.”
Sports like ice-hockey, soccer, lacrosse and baseball are huge in Canada where specialisation in one sport from a young age is very common.
That presents a challenge from a recruitment point of view for Gaelic Games, but also an opportunity.
For those parents who would prefer their children to play a sport for the fun and social element rather than be burdened by the pressure to excel that’s often a by-product of specialisation, Gaelic Games present an attractive alternative.
“I would say we're much more of a recreational level sport for kids, but for the families that do get involved, that's what they love about it,” says Mortimer.
“They're looking for something different. They don’t want to their children to be focused on a single specialised sport.
“These kids start to play Gaelic Games for the same reason that I did - because it’s an intriguing sport and a really fun sport to play. And you start with the sport but you stay for the community.
“It really is unique. You do find that a lot of the families that get involved have Irish surnames but that Irish ancestry could be two or three generations back and they want to connect with that Irish culture and that's what gets them interested. And then they stay around.
“I only see it continuing to grow and Vancouver are a good example of why, there are just so many more people getting involved.
“And when there’s more clubs it means you’re reaching more people, getting more sponsors involved, and attracting more and more interest.”
Canada might be a big country, but Canada GAA have ambitions to match.