Spelling Bee of Canada changing lives for 30 years
April 28, 2017
In the early days of the spelling bee competition, founder Julie Spence rewarded the winners with trips to Toronto’s Queen’s Park and Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
When Suzette Thompson captured the intermediate title in 1988, she made a special request to meet with the Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.
“He was the most important person at the time,” the French Immersion student said. “I was a very shy person my father enrolled me in the competition. But I gained confidence when I won and was on top of the world. I felt I was smart and could do anything.”
Thompson read a letter she penned in English and French for the PM.
“I basically told him how much of an honour itwas for me to come out on top in the competition and I thanked him for taking the time out of his busy schedule to meet me,” she said. “He was very cordial and gave me a big hug.”
Winning the competition as a nine-year-old set the tone for Thompson’s life.
The St. Robert Catholic High School graduate successfully completed psychology and theological studies at McMaster University and Canada Christian College respectively.
She has been a pastor for 15 years, the last 18 months being at Richmond Hill Pentecostal Church.
Spelling Bee of Canada (SBOC) is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
Former provincial Minister of Education Sean Conway’s plea in the mid-1980s for parents to be more involved in their children’s education was like sweet music to Spence’s ears.
The director at the Caribbean Excelsior Fraternal Association (CEFA) was thinking about a program that would engage both parties after a dad dropped off his child at a talent show Spence organized.
Before leaving, the parent said that he would remain with his child for the duration of another CEFA event if there was a program that would capture his attention.
That was Spence’s cue to start a spelling bee for kids.
Launched with 30 Black students in 1987, SBOC has engaged more than 50,000 young people from 33 chapters across Canada.
Spence grew up in Jamaica where spelling bees were popular.
“We had parish competitions and during the spelling bee season, residents with radios would take them out to their yards and neighbours would congregate around the transistors and cheer on their favourites,” she recounted. “That was when I realized how much the competition brought people together.”
Documentary filmmaker & photographer Lana Slezic got more than she bargained for when she called the SBOC office last year to inquire how she could improve her eight-year-old son spelling skills.
When she learnt there was a First Nations spelling bee contest in Saskatchewan for the first time later that month, she headed to the prairies with her cameras and spent several months shooting a documentary.
‘Bee Nation’ is the opening night movie at this year’s Hot Docs Film Festival that starts on April 27.
Spence expects the documentary will bring more visibility to SBOC.
“We have had Aboriginal students in the past, but they were from Ontario,” she said. “This was the first time we went to a First Nation reserve and it is so exciting to see parts of that history-making moment captured on film for others to see. This will help to build awareness and advance the work we are doing through the competition to promote learning while helping to develop self-esteem and encourage the adoption of positive life skills among youths.”
The top three qualifiers in three age divisions advanced from the regional competitions that concluded on April 9 in Ontario, Saskatchewan, Edmonton and British Columbia.
Students between the ages of six and eight compete in the primary category while the junior and intermediate divisions bring together youths from nine to 11 and 12 to 14 respectively.
A total of 99 contestants will participate in the finals on May 7 at the Toronto Plaza Hotel, 1677 Wilson Ave.
For the first time ever, there is a French competition bringing together 90 competitors from 10 regions.
Epelle-Moi Canada founder Dorine Tcheumeleu, a Cameroon-born educator residing in Windsor, collaborated with SBOC to start a Francophone spelling bee.