Written by Kathy Newman,
In 1966 the second Commonwealth Paraplegic Games were held in Kingston, Jamaica. It was here that Ben Reimer of Winnipeg achieved great success, and would later be named Canada’s Athlete of the Year. It was, in part, Reimer’s success that motivated a number of Winnipeggers, led by Allan Simpson, to approach the organizing committee for the 1967 Winnipeg Pan-American (Pan Am) Games to include a wheelchair basketball game. Initially they were turned down, but they were not discouraged enough to quit.
Known as the “Manitoba Monday Night Club,” these wheelchair sport advocates would meet regularly at a sports and recreation drop-in centres for persons with disabilities. A number of issues were discussed at these meetings, including: transportation, accessibility, volunteerism, organizing, and public fundraising. In 1967, it suddenly seemed as though all of these issues were coming together, and the rejection from the Pan Am Games organizing committee was the straw that ultimately broke the camel’s back.
The group began to communicate with like-minded individuals and groups in the United States, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Argentina, and they started to look at the possibility of hosting a separate, but parallel Pan Am Games for athletes with disabilities. With little progress made, Al Simpson decided to stage a protest at the Winnipeg hotel where the organizing committee of the Pan Am Games was meeting. Following the protest, the organizing committee relented and agreed to recognize the creation of a Wheelchair Pan Am Games Section.
Once given the mandate to host the games, the next problem of course was how to pay for them. A group of individuals, including Al Simpson; Tony Mann, the Executive Director of the Manitoba division of the Canadian Paraplegic Association (CPA); and Doug Mowat of the BC division of the CPA began the long process of lobbying the government.
Federal Minister, John Monroe, finally agreed to provide a grant to Simpson and his committee, but regulations stipulated that the money had to be distributed to a national organization. The Canadian Wheelchair Sports Association (CWSA) did not officially exist at this point, and so, the CPA Board of Directors agreed to act as the temporary national association.
While the Manitoba group was preparing for the games, the CPA was linking with people from across Canada using the HAM radio network – a form of amateur radio that was very popular in the mid-1960s. Despite the fact that HAM radio hookups were technically illegal because they circumvented the Bell Telephone system, the CPA was able to continue using this system because Bell Canada chose to overlook them. It was through this connection that Al Simpson, Dough Mowat, and Vic Cue started to seriously discuss the need for a national wheelchair sport organization.
In the winter of 1966, the Winnipeg Pan-Am Games organizing committee began staging a series of “playoffs” that would help them to select a Canadian national team to compete at the games. Direct competition was impossible because of the vast distance and extreme cost, and so the organizers simply compared the best times or distances taken from local events. In reality, however, there weren’t that many qualified athletes in Canada, and thus every effort was made to bring anyone who was sincere in their efforts to compete.
The Games were officially opened on August 8th, and perceived as a great success. While the athletes were competing and training, numerous other individuals, including Al Simpson, were discussing the merits and need of a Canadian national wheelchair sports organization. Two days later, on August 10th, at a University of Manitoba Residence in Winnipeg, Al Simpson was one of thirteen board members to be elected toward the creation of a national wheelchair sports association.