By Darren Lum
It’s all about standing up for what is right said J. Douglas Hodgson Elementary School teacher Marina Thomazo.
That’s the driving sentiment behind her Grade 7/8 French Immersion class, who are lobbying the Dysart et al Township to right what they perceive as a wrong and have two new murals with Haliburton Highlands Secondary School alumni Olympian Lesley Tashlin and former CFLer Taly Williams, both Black athletes, to the wall of fame on the side of the A.J. LaRue Arena in Haliburton.
This effort included sending a letter to Dysart et al Mayor Andrea Roberts and having it be included as part of a council meeting on March 23.
The beginning of the letter reads: “We are the students from the 7/8 French Immersion class at J. Douglas Hodgson Elementary School. Since the beginning of September, our school has been committed to foster a culture based on social- justice principles of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. We regularly celebrate during our morning announcements and in our classes the achievements of people who demonstrate those principles and local excellence.”
This focus helped them learn about the Olympic sprinter Lesley Tashlin and her brother, former CFLer Taly Williams. “She graduated from J. Douglas Hodgson Elementary School and then Haliburton Highlands Secondary School where she earned Athlete of the Year honours in 1987. After several years, she became a national champion in the 100 metre hurdles and then competed for Canada at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games where she competed in the 4 x 100 metre relay and the 100 metre hurdles. Her brother Williams, who was introduced to football when he played for the HHSS football team, played for the University of Waterloo and then professionally for the Toronto Argonauts and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the Canadian Football League.
Thomazo said her students, some who had been raised in the area, just didn’t understand why they never heard of the two athletes and believed it was wrong they hadn’t been recognized.
“It becomes quite a habit to stand for the little guys that they believe have been treated unfairly or they haven’t been recognized for what they did. That’s what my students were saying. Especially when we presented those two people and they said, ‘how come we don’t know about them?’ she said.
Thomazo said the main difference between this year’s students and other years is how they are independent thinkers, who question what has happened because of what they have been exposed to in the news and how they look up to people of different ethnicities.
“It’s the world we live [in]. It’s everything that’s happening. They grew up thinking differently. They see more through social media because they are constantly on it. They see change is happening around the world and want to see change happening in their own community as well I believe,” she said.
Mayor Roberts welcomed the letter from the students, which included the mural request and asked for clarification about the athlete selection process.
In an email, Roberts said, it’s important the students are looking at social justice, inclusion, diversity and equity. She adds, “I am encouraged to think that children of that age are having these conversations.”
Roberts encouraged the students of the class to watch the proceedings via YouTube. She doesn’t remember there was any selection criteria for athletes to have a mural when she was on council when the last murals were added in 2012, but will be checking with former Mayor Murray Fearrey.
From an Echo article in 2012, the murals were funded anonymously and included the addition of NHL player Cody Hodgson and then later in the year CFLer Mike Bradley was added. Fearrey said at the time “this is a wall of fame for people who have made it in professional sports.”
Retired HHSS teacher and Tashlin’s former track coach for four years Paul Morissette remembers Tashlin as an unbelievable person, as well as hard working, coachable and humble. He can’t think of a more deserving candidate to be added to the wall of murals on the A.J. LaRue Arena.
“Without a doubt, she is the most accomplished female athlete this county has ever produced. Without a doubt,” he said.
Morissette said every year Tashlin competed in as many track events as allowed, competing in three track events in addition to the relay disciplines: 4 x 100 metres and 4 x 400 metres. Her toughness was on full display in her first year. He still remembers how the 14-year-old Tashlin forced a photo finish with a never-say-die dive to win a hurdling race at the Eastern Ontario track finals in Ottawa.
“She goes over the last hurdle and she slowly loses her balance, but she fought right through to the end [before falling] – there’s about a 10 or 12 metre run from the last hurdle to the finish line. She dove across and it looked like she fell, but the reality was … we had to go back and look at the tape – the photo finish tape because they were going to disqualify her. Lo and behold, she finished the race. Her head went across, in the up right position. That kind of epitomized that will to finish,” he said.
Morissette recently spoke to Tashlin, who is a registered massage therapist with her own practice in Ottawa. She spent nine years training and competing as an elite track athlete around the world, representing Canada. She was a national champion in the 100-metre hurdles, and represented Canada at the Commonwealth Games in 1994 and 1998, the Pan American Games in 1995 and 1999, and the Jeux de la Francophonie in 2001.
During their conversation, he said, she told him about how getting to compete in a full range of sports from autumn to spring at HHSS helped foster her love of sport and benefited her in athletics.
“Her love for sport came [from] here. Passion, love for sport where she wasn’t burnt out and the university level and beyond is where she [excelled],” he said.
She recounted the toll that was paid by many female athletes at the university level, who were either injured or burned out physically from over training and competing in one sport for many years. Morissette said Tashlin could have focused on only track, training with clubs outside of the county, but chose to play all the sports such as field hockey, volleyball, and badminton, he said.
Although her Olympics ended before the finals during the heats in the hurdles, he remembers how she didn’t let that take away from her experience.
“She clipped a hurdle early on. She didn’t sulk about it. She didn’t quit. She ran the 4 x 100 [metre relay race]. She still had the time of her life,” he said. “She knew in that particular [hurdle] race that she needed to be exceptionally fast. She was running against the very, very best.”
He believed she had the potential to move on from that heat had she stayed on her feet.
In an email message from Tashlin’s brother, he said it was his excellence in academics that set him apart from others. The pursuit of academics and a path to post-secondary education was part of the reason why he moved from Toronto and attended HHSS for his final two years. He said receiving the award for having the second highest average of all graduating students as “one of my proudest moments up there” in 1989. He remembers the “weekly battles” to keep marks high against peers such as Jamie Bruce, Paul Robinson and Chris Youngdale. With the French award for the highest grade, he acknowledged his teachers such as French teacher Mrs. McLean, math teacher Mrs. Cooper, physics teacher Mr. Cooper and Mr. Morissette for being “excellent teachers.”
These accolades, he said, are representative of what he was able to gain from Haliburton.
“Obviously, I was quite good in athletics but it was the academics that really set me apart from others at the University of Waterloo and later with the Argonauts and Ti-Cats,” he wrote.
There were also challenges, apart from a busy schedule with academics and athletics.
“Being a minority in Haliburton was definitely a challenge and also noticeable … I do thank people like the Little family, the Rydmans, Madills, and I am certain there are others that helped make my time there enjoyable. Obviously, being Lindsey and Lesley’s brother made the transition much, much easier. We already had a great name up there before I arrived so I was fortunate to be able to benefit from that,” he wrote.
From Williams’ LinkedIn, he is currently the co-founder and managing partner at AQORA Capital, an investment firm focused on water infrastructure, technology and services. He is an inventor of the TALY MIND Set for golf, and is also an expert in North America for treatment of extremely impaired drinking water, as stated in his LinkedIn page.
Williams said he was “touched” by the students’ efforts and thanks them for what they’re trying to do.
“I would love to be on a mural to be a symbol to my kids and others regarding what you can achieve and who can achieve it,” he wrote.
Related to athletics, he said, his sister is one of his heroes.
“She is just amazing. If only one of us could get on the mural, I would want it to be her,” he wrote. “Her and [my other sister] Lindsey’s success in Haliburton and then Lesley’s Olympic success later on really drove me. She made me stronger physically (literally). Always racing or testing me in the gym and being able to lift as much and more than me really drove me.”
Tashlin may not have earned the pay cheques earned by male athletes, who played in the NHL, but she was a professional in attitude and by the country.
Morissette points out she was a paid athlete because of her status with the federal government, who provided funding to high national level athletes. For most female athletes, he said, sport really is only about the love of the game because there are only a few exceptions such as tennis and golf where women can aspire to the wealth that males can attain as a high calibre athlete. He said track is demanding and pushed Tashlin to train and compete for much of her nine years competing, really, only taking a break to raise a family.
Thomazo said she’s aware of the hurdles related to how governance can play in getting things done so she has prepared her students for possible delays and challenges. However, she’s hopeful. When the last murals were added it was a different time with different attitudes. So far there has already been a positive: the awareness raised and the discussion that has come from the effort is a benefit for all the students.
“It can spark some discussion and people can think twice, ‘Yeah, why did we miss out on that?’ And, yes, we may encounter barriers, but it’s all positive,” she said, referring to the discussion raised.
“We were all excited about it. It was presented during a morning announcement and it sparked conversation in classes and this is what we wanted. We want people to re-think, not only think, but re-think,” she said.