Opening marked with memories and music

It was a moment of solemn reflection amid the whoops, cheers and pageantry of the opening ceremonies. With a little help, two-year-old Ava Milner…

It was a moment of solemn reflection amid the whoops, cheers and pageantry of the opening ceremonies.

With a little help, two-year-old Ava Milner lit the Games’ cauldron in memory of her grandfather, Peter Milner.

Milner started the ball rolling on these Games in 1991, and worked tirelessly to secure the event for Whitehorse. Some consider him the man responsible for the Games, but he never saw his dream become reality.

Milner died of cancer in early 2005.

“He believed that the Games would inspire people to help make our communities a better place to live,” Canada Winter Games Host Society president Piers McDonald told the crowd gathered for the opening ceremonies on Friday.

“Peter’s positive energy and enthusiasm will remain with all of us as we light the cauldron celebrating the opening the 2007 Canada Winter Games.”

It marked the culmination of the nearly three-hour celebration filled with music and dance from the three northern territories, and decades of work from Yukoners.

Broadcast on both CBC Newsworld and APTN, it also marked the start of bringing the nation’s eyes north to Whitehorse for the next two weeks.

While temperatures outside plummeted to 30 below Celsius, it was cozy inside the Atco Place tent where more than 4,000 athletes, parents, coaches, volunteers and VIPs gathered to open the Games.

At the ceremony’s start, the colourful 13 provincial and territorial teams snaked into Atco Place brandishing noisemakers and team flags.

BC premier Gordon Campbell enthusiastically waved a giant provincial flag as the BC contingent entered the arena.

The crowd stood to welcome Nunavut’s smaller contingent, which was outfitted in bright blue and red.

But the loudest cheer came for team Yukon, which received handshakes and high-fives from Yukon Premier Dennis Fentie as they passed the podium.

The three amigos — Fentie, NWT Premier Joe Handley and Nunavut premier Paul Okalik — and Prime Minister Stephen Harper were on hand to give speeches and cheer on their contingents.

“From east and west and north to south, isn’t it great to be Canadian?” Harper asked the crowd, which responded with thundering cheers and a standing ovation.

“Standing on this stage looking at all the organizers and volunteers, feeling the energy in the air, seeing the faces of you young athletes I know these are going to be the best Canada Games yet,” he said.

“Welcome to the northern experience,” said Okalik, who donned traditional garb for the occasion. “With this introduction Canadians look up north and come and visit us.”

“Good luck, compete hard and have fun — you are all winners,” Fentie told the athletes.

The ceremony showcased talent from all three territories with throat singers from Nunavut, singer Leela Gilday from the NWT and Yukon’s Barbara Chamberlain rounding out the performances with a rousing version of Follow Your Heart.

And top Canadian athletes Brian Orser and Hayley Wickenheiser, among others, stopped by, to pass the Games’ flag on to this year’s athletes.

After the ceremony, a few athletes took a break from screaming and flag waving to give their thoughts on the Games and the territory.

“It’s the best experience of my life, I love watching the different cultures,” said short-track speed skater Cheryl LeBlanc from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.

“It’s an awesome place, I got, like, a lot of souvenirs,” she added.

“Farthest north I’ve ever been,” said Albertan shooter Jim Hildebrand from Grande Prairie. “It’s cold, but it’s alright. It kind of reminds me of home a bit.”

“Robert Service was right about the Yukon, I love it,” said Prince Edward Islander Mitchell Underhay, 18, who is in Whitehorse for the national artist program.

“What an experience it is, we got to go dog sledding and the weather is just amazing — it’s so fresh,” said synchronized swimmer Olivia Hildreth from Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Hildreth’s teammate Hillary Thompson was sporting sparkling blue eye shadow and large blue letters inked across her cheeks, which spelled out: “Go NS!”

“I love the water and being with a team and knowing that everybody has support,” she said.

“It was so much fun today, I’ve had so much fun just cheering and yelling; it was really nice to see the premier and Paul and Hayley Wickenheiser was here,” said team Nunavut badminton player Kelli McLarty.

The charismatic18-year-old athlete from Rankin Inlet also has no shortage of good things to say about her territory’s premier.

“It doesn’t matter who you are, he’s so nice to you. He’s like your friend; he’s not a big political guy who won’t talk to you,” she said after the ceremony, while draped in the Nunavut flag.

“That’s why we address him by ‘Paul’ I don’t think he’d like it if we called him ‘Mr. Okalik,” she added with a smile.

The Games run until March 10.