At the helm of the Games

Don Cooper came north for the challenge in the courts, but found another one entirely

NNSL (Feb 02/98) - When a younger lawyer named Don Cooper first came North in the seventies, it was for two reasons. The first, he remembers, was the adventure.

"I went to law school at Queen's University in Ontario," Cooper begins. "I articled in Toronto and was called to the bar in Toronto. I was working in Toronto when a call came from Yellowknife from a fellow I had articled with. He had answered an ad on a bulletin board to come North in 1975. He phoned me in May of 1975, and said the firm he was with was recruiting, and they wanted to offer me a job. They made it sound very exciting."

The second reason Don took the step was a sense of dissatisfaction with his environment in the South.

"I decided I didn't like what I saw in Toronto," he says. "I saw a tremendous hustle and bustle, hundreds of young lawyers competing for the same piece of work. It was a hierarchy where young lawyers were expected to work 16 to 18 hours a day for low remuneration. They "carried the bag" for older lawyers, a combination of a valet and a gopher for several years before they could get any serious work."

"The North offered opportunity," Cooper adds. "This was a very young bar in those days. We could do legal work that lawyers our age could only dream about in the South. We went out on court circuits and travelled as criminal defence lawyers, travelled the whole of the Northwest Territories, and tried some very serious cases at a very young age.

"You essentially are out there on your own. You get thrown off the end of boat, so to speak; it was a great experience. When I first arrived there was only one traffic light, and maybe two paved streets in Yellowknife. There were 7,000 to 8,000 people here."

After his arrival, Don began participating in sporting and cultural events in the North. This led to his present position as president of the Arctic Winter Games Society.

Athletics has been pretty much part of his routine, says Don. "I used to be very active in athletics growing up, and in university. I had tried out for the Toronto Argonauts and the Ottawa Rough Riders before I came North."

But the Arctic Winter Games have held Don's Attention for more than a decade.

"The games started in 1970, and I got involved in the games in 1982, when it was learned they were coming back to Yellowknife in 1984. The mayor at the time, Mike Ballantyne asked me if I would be the president of the Arctic Winter Games Society in Yellowknife."

Don has seen a lot changes, and has had some good experiences as the president of the Arctic Winter Games International Committee from 1986 to 1995. In the early years the games were smaller compared with the scope of the games today.

"They were smaller," says Cooper. "They've been growing incrementally every two years, almost since 1970. It seems to me in 1984 there were 900 athletes, officials and coaches. There were three original teams, namely NWT, Yukon and Alaska. There were about 12 or 13 events."

"Today, among athletes, officials, coaches and mission staff, we have about 1,750. The budget, as I recall, was about $650,000 dollars in 1984. Today, it's $2.745 million. There's Northern Alberta, Greenland and two provinces, or oblasts, from Russia. The participation of the Greenlanders and the Russians gave us more excitement for the community. All of a sudden we have complications like translation. It added another dimension, a much enhanced cultural component. We added sports to accommodate Greenland."

Cooper remains humble at the mention of his contribution. The games have given him a chance to contribute to his own memories of people and places.

"I had some good experiences. I've been to Greenland twice. I went to the Russian embassy in 1989 in Ottawa, to invite the Russians to send a delegation to Yellowknife in 1990. They led us past a room with a huge bank of monitoring equipment and computers humming away. The attachÈ wore several Second World War ribbons. He was a grizzled old warrior. "

Asked about his motivation to take on the task of hosting the games, he answers directly.

"I became involved because I believe, and I always have, in doing something for the community. I considered myself an athlete, and I've been involved in athletics and sports all my life. I saw it as an opportunity to be involved in something that was exciting, and I hadn't done anything like that before. It involved mostly younger people and athletics, and I could make a contribution to the community."

The tasks involved in putting on the games have changed much over the years. Adaptability remains key.

"Fundraising is a big challenge -- it always has been. In 1984, 95 per cent of the funding for the AWG was received from the combination of the territorial, federal and the municipal governments. Today, the majority of the funding has to be obtained through the private sector."

"In total, we've got between $900,000 and $1.0 million from government. It might even be a little better than that. I'm talking cash, goods, and services in kind. When you consider the in-kind donations of the city, for example, the schools donating the use of their gyms the arena, the value of those donations increase."

"Today, the games are 40 to 45 per cent government-funded. As of last week we were $250,000 short of our target. We're hoping to close the gap on that in the last seven weeks. Rather than hire a fundraiser we divided up the responsibilities of contacting businesses among the board of directors. It's not something you like to do on evenings or weekends. Most of us have day jobs and have found it difficult to fit in the approach to businesses. We're all getting down to business now, and I'm confident we'll raise the necessary money."

Asked about the coincidence of the Caribou Carnival and the Games, and the possible effect on the Games, Cooper replied, "It seems to me we had both in, either in 1984 or 1990, and it wasn't a problem. We could end up competing for some of the same volunteers, but I don't think it'll be a problem."

So, with the 1998 Arctic Winter Games on track for March, what's Don think about his other experiences in the North? Is it still the adventurous place he remembers?

"The North has been constantly changing, and it will continue to change. I think a lot of people, when they first come up, the romance and the allure of the North is something that's extremely strong. But these things change over time. After a while you come to consider it as your home. To some extent it's the same as living in Burlington or some other place. You make your life here. I still enjoy the dynamics of the North. It's still a place of great potential a great place to be.

Of his family life, Don says proudly, "My wife, Lorraine, is the president of the speed skating association. My oldest daughter, Merrill, is a speed skater, and was one of our skaters at the games in Alaska in 1996. She's on the team this year, and she's also a volunteer on the ceremonies and awards committee. I have two other younger daughters, Megan tried out for soccer, but her team got eliminated. Margot is too young, she's only 10."

When the Games are over, what's next?

"I have a full-time job that keeps me pretty busy, and three girls that could use more attention. I'm not sure that I'll jump to get involved in anything in a big way right away. I sure something will come along. If I volunteer for something, I need to enjoy it and want to do it. That's how you do a good job. Something may come along. My kids are involved in speed skating. It may be that, it may be something else."

Twenty-three years ago Don was a dissatisfied young man looking for more substance. And, he says, he has found it.

"I met my wife here, and the North has been my home for 23 years, all my children were born here. This is my home."