“It’s a celebration,” Hailey Bossio exclaims with conviction. She’s talking about the McGill chapter of Relay for Life, for which Bossio, along with Nadia Fentiman, are co-presidents. The first Relay for Life event to be held at a Quebec university, took place at McGill on the October 5-6 at Tomlinson Fieldhouse. Both co-presidents – along with Christopher Smith, Vice President (VP) Logistics – were more than ecstatic to open up about the months leading up to the relay, and about the night itself.
A Relay for Life event goes something like this: teams, made up of ten people each, are responsible for having at least one member on the track at all times, either walking or running. The event lasts for 12 hours, from sunset on the first day, to sunrise on the next.
There are three main themes of the relay: celebrate, remember, and fight back. To ‘celebrate,’ cancer survivors (including patients who have cancer and are currently undergoing treatment) are invited to start the relay and start the first lap. For ‘remember,’ members light luminaries (white paper bags with candles in them) dedicated to someone who is either currently fighting cancer, or someone who has passed – and place them around the track for the remainder of the night. ‘Fight back’ is the end of the relay, and, as Fentiman continues, “We had a ‘fight back’ wall where people could write messages, why they were fighting back against cancer, for [whom]…”
It’s hard to find someone who can’t relate to the cause. The Canadian cancer rate is one in three people, and, as the saying goes, if you don’t know someone who has cancer, you know someone who knows someone who has cancer. Even though that rate is sadly very high, for Fentiman, it allows people to relate and open up to others in ways that they may not have been able to under different circumstances. Bossio recalls seeing a few younger survivors at the relay, who, according to her, “maybe would never have told people at McGill that they had battled cancer [...] They were able to open up to their friends.”
For Smith, it was nice to see something that everyone had spent a long time on finally come together before their eyes. “It was really something we were all so passionate about and had spent so much time putting together. I know it’s a cliché, but it was a success beyond any of our imaginations.”
The event planning took a year in total. “When I think of team effort, the Relay exec committee is what I think of,” confesses Fentiman. It’s hard to describe one VP’s duties, because all McGill Relay executive members were involved in each other’s work. “[...] You don’t always get along with your team and we were very lucky that way,” added Fentiman.
The process was delayed because the executive committee needed to gain the approval of the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS), which was a long process. The CCS has a lot of turnover. The CCS representative to McGill Relay changed halfway through, when the executives were presented with Myriam Lemieux, “who worked overtime and helped us [a lot],” explained Fentiman.
“[McGill] is always a little behind in school spirit, so it took us a while to realize that it was something that could be successful,” continued Bossio.
The executive mainly dealt with McGill Athletics, who waived the rental fee for the Fieldhouse for the event. They are also very grateful for the McGill Plate Club, who provided all the plates, mugs, and champagne flutes for the survivors, as well as the platters for the cupcakes and vegetables. In an effort to keep the event sustainable, big canteen containers were filled with frozen juice and water from the fountain, and participants had to get their own bottles. In the end, over 200 people’s waste fit into four garbage bags.
Over $32,000 was raised. The biggest fundraisers were the Plumber’s Philharmonic Orchestra (those people in labcoats who stood at the Roddick gates and asked for donations for the CCS), a team that raised $6,000 in five days, as well as Peter Clarkson – a McGill residences floor fellow – who raised $1,500 on his own.
The money goes directly to the CCS, and mainly to research funding. Cancer research is expensive, and finding funding for it proves difficult. Smith believes, people are wary of donating to big charities because they don’t know where their money is going, but, “Having [Jonathan Cools-Lartigue] telling us that our money directly funds his research [on detecting lung cancer earlier] was very cool because… It was like validation of why [we] were there.”
The CCS also funds support groups and prevention and awareness campaigns. Fentiman mirrored Smith’s opinion: “CCS is huge and you think the money is [going to] salaries, but then you find out that it’s going somewhere productive.”
Relay fundraising is also provided from corporations such as banks, investment groups, pharma companies, et cetera. Hailey Bossio admits that, ethically, these companies “receive [positive] visibility for their funding, if not a tax receipt.” But they also get fundraising from small businesses. A bakery in the West Island donated 100 muffins and a woman from Atwater Market also donated. “I think it’s because they’ve been personally affected, or they just believe in what the [CCS] is doing,” Bossio continues.
One of the organizations’ limits included the timing of the event – which took place right before midterms. Another was encouraging people to raise $100 each which, Fentiman admits, can be off-putting for a lot of students. The executives present also indicated that another limitation on McGill Relay is having to go through the CCS. Some people who had already donated to the CCS refused to donate to Relay for Life. Other times, they couldn’t access some information regarding the event, or see who was registered.
The executive committee has hope for future McGill Relays. Fentiman points out that it’s a great way to get people from the Montreal community together (there were participants from UQAM, Concordia, and people who weren’t even students).
For Bossio, it’s a way to bring the truly lacklustre school spirit back, albeit in one way that isn’t purely academic.
Collectively, they hope it will become a legacy, and an integral part of the McGill experience. Smith continues, hopefully, “Give it three more events and you won’t have a kid at McGill who doesn’t know what Relay is.”