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Major Problems behind them, Ontario Winter Games organizers are focussed on the future

From transportation issues, to appointing health and safety officials, Games Manager Cindy Burwell has had her hands full.

There are less than 90 days until the 2022 Ontario Winter Games, taking place in various locations across the County of Renfrew.

The games, which are scheduled for February 25 – 27 and March 3 – 6, are expected to draw thousands of athletes, families and coaches to the Ottawa Valley.

For a brief moment, there appeared to be cracks forming in the foundation of the games itself, and there have been some naysayers saying the games wouldn’t take place because of COVID and logistical challenges.

But those naysayers have not met Cindy Burwell, the games’ manager and an organizational leader.

She recently coordinated a very successful celebration of Zurich’s major railway station accomplishments over 100 years. It was a role filled with political infighting and a collision of class and society in terms of accessing any of those issues.

She not only survived, but she was credited for helping to maintain the confidence of the millions of railway users.

“It is always easy to sit back and criticize and we certainly expected some challenges and speedbumps along the way, but our team has really pulled [the games] together, and what looked bleak a few months ago has turned into a county wide push to get us there in February," said Burwell.

After the competitive bid was closed and Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture, Minister Lisa MacLeod went to the podium for a virtual confirmation that the County of Renfrew had the winning bid, Peter Emon, Chair of the Games, began contacting individuals to fill key committee leadership roles, but his most important personnel selection was Burwell as games manager.

Since her appointment in May 2021, she and the committee faced some daunting challenges.

The call for 700 volunteers started out well, but seemed to plateau around 250.

“We knew the pool of volunteers would slow down and I have seen this in other large events amend it is a natural cycle,” Burwell said. "But as of this week I can report we just recruited our 500th volunteer. I think you will see a flurry of action at our Volunteer Portal.”

Then came word that one of the major carriers to be assigned with helping transport up top 3,500 athletes around the largest county in Ontario withdrew its commitment.

“Perhaps one of the biggest, if not the biggest challenge we face is making sure these young athletes get to the competitions on time and it is our job to get them place to place,” Burwell said. “Local school bus operators are barely able to make all the routes because a lack of drivers and the cost involved.  

“As a result we were forced to go outside the county for carriers to transport the athletes. It is disappointing our local operators could not go on, but we understand how tough it has been for them lately.”

Burwell said her role as manager often is like playing whack-a-mole, as problems seem to always pop up just as a solution is found for another one.

“Just as important as transportation is, we were facing another big setback when it came to staffing medical personnel at all the game sites,” she said. “We need a minimum two medical personnel at each event and we may have up to 27 venues and that is an all-day venue. So a four-shift means we need 110 medical aides to cover each day.”

Fortunately for Burwell, the solution appeared one day in the form of Victoria Cleary. It didn’t take long for Burwell and Emon to appoint Cleary as the Medical chair for Ontario Winter Games 2022.

“We were so happy when Victoria said yes because she was also a part of the medical team for the Canada Winter games in Red Deer Alberta in 2019. She has been an international Athletic Therapist for Wrestling Canada for the last decade.”

Aside from scheduling the medical personnel for the two weekends, Cleary is responsible for all things COVID.

“This is something no other games have had to deal with and Victoria is working very closely with our public health unit to make sure all protocols are followed and everybody gets home safe.”

Then, one of the most unexpected and disappointing challenges came from the elected heads of council that make up the 17-member county council.

Emon told members of Renfrew County Council they will be using every hotel room in the community and are also bringing in 100 cots from Orillia who previously hosted the winter games.

Emon put forward a motion at the County Council on Wednesday, October 28, to reassure the community and province of their intentions to host the 2022 Ontario Winter Games.

The motion passed, but there was a vocal minority calling into the question of financial liability in the event a major COVID wave returned forcing crowd size limits being the chief concern.  

On November 16, Minister McLeod was about to make a major announcement and those inside the loop knew why she was there.

"I’ll bet some of them thought the worst and expected to be told to go home and the Games were cancelled,” Burwell said.

It was anything but.

"The minister announced a $400,000 transfer to the games to help cover COVID costs that were not even thought of," she explained. "I know our transportation and medical aid committees will be curious about allocation of funds.

At the time, McLeod reminded those in attendance the entire event should be viewed as a bright spot in the economic and social recovery of the province following the challenges faced by many in the industries she represents which will benefit from the games due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Burwell said her visit and timely donation will go a long way for the success of the games and for the big boost in moral it brought.

“Money can’t cure everything but it sure helps," she said. “No other games committee has had to deal with such uncertainty and any COVID protocol the health unit instructs us to do, it will likely cost money."

"So yes, having the minister visit is not totally new to her as she represents the constituents of her Nepean riding and the Ottawa Valley is right next door,"
Burwell added. "I am inviting everyone to come to the Valley and see first-hand the incredible talent these young athletes have.”

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