The dog sled races will not be a part of the competitive aspect of the Labrador Winter Games this year but will be featured as an exhibition sport.
Ernie McLean, chair of the Labrador Winter Games (LWG), said the organizers know a number of mushers have an issue with the races no longer being a part of the competition but he notes it’s too late to change it for this year’s games.
McLean said they reached out to a number of the mushers and the concerns mainly came from three communities — Port Hope Simpson, Charlottetown and Pinsent’s Arm.
“We explained to them the rationale for the idea of having an all Labrador dog team race, to increase the visibility of the sport, not in any way, shape or form to diminish the dog sled racing in the LWG,” he said.
A technical assessment of the 2016 LWG showed the number of communities participating declining, he said, and they thought by changing dog sled racing to an exhibition sport — where more than one team could participate from each community — they could increase the visibility on an all Labrador level.
“We thought this would be the way to do that,” McLean said. “We put that out as part of the technical package in September and we didn’t realize there were concerns until we got a letter Feb. 1.”
He said they looked at whether it could be changed back but there simply wasn’t enough time to make that kind of change before the LWG, which start on March 17.
They should have communicated the changes to the mushers better and earlier, McLean said, and the organizers will take responsibility for that.
The Feb. 1 letter McLean referenced was sent by 12 mushers who said they would boycott the games if the sport wasn’t returned to the games. One of those who signed the letter, Dwayne Russell of Charlottetown, said he’s on the fence now on whether or not to participate.
“I’m of two minds about it,” he told The Labradorian. “I registered but I’m not 100 per cent sure I’ll be there.”
Russell, who has won the gold medal in the dog sled races three times, said he doesn’t like the way it was changed without talking to the mushers and he feels the sport is an important part of the games.
“I always thought it was about celebrating our culture and heritage, to compete in our heritage and cultural sports,” he said. “It’s educational for the youth too. Some of these sports they only see at the winter games. The dog team races are a highlight of that.”
Russell competes in other dog sled races on the coast but said the LWG was the only opportunity for each community to have a team and compete with all of Labrador.
Dennis Burden, a musher from Port Hope Simpson who also signed the letter, agreed with Russell that the LWG is the highlight of dog sled racing in Labrador and the race was always a highlight of the games. He won’t be competing this year.
“They should’ve talked to us before making the change,” he said. “If they say they’re trying to promote dog sled racing in Labrador, then make it mandatory in the games. That would help it grow.”
Russell said if they had been consulted they would have happily worked with LWG to find ways to make it grow. He said he believes they had the right idea, trying to promote the races, but didn’t go about it the right way.
McLean said the next LWG committee will have to decide whether dog sled racing will return to the games in 2022.