Celebrated Manitoban Clara Hughes is legendary in this province, and not just for being a six-time speed-skating and cycling Olympic medallist.
Though her medals have made her famous, her charity work for organizations like the Right to Play have made her beloved, as The Canadian Press once wrote. More recently she has become a passionate spokeswoman for those suffering mental health issues, following her own battle with depression.
Hughes, now the face of Bell Let’s Talk, has been taking her optimism and her mental health message for a stigma-free Canada on the road as part of Clara’s Big Ride, a 12,000-km, 110-day bicycle tour that will see her visit 95 communities across the country.
On Friday morning, more than 700 students from across western Manitoba took in her message of inspiration, support, acceptance and hope she delivered at Brandon University’s Healthy Living Centre as part of that lengthy journey. By all accounts, the students were clearly engaged by Hughes, and we hope this was a sign that the Olympian’s message was hitting the mark with these young people.
On Thursday evening, however — not long after she rolled into Brandon on her bicycle — Hughes was presented with a key to the city in Brandon by Mayor Shari Decter Hirst, only the second time this Wheat City honour has been bestowed.
Notice of the key’s pending bestowal was made public only a few short hours before Hughes arrived in Brandon.
“We wanted it to be a surprise for Clara,” Decter Hirst told the Sun. “I was worried that she would decline if she found out because she is a very humble person.
“This is a great tradition and a great opportunity for the city to recognize these individuals.”
We happen to agree with her. In 2011, Decter Hirst awarded what was believed to have been Brandon’s first key to the city to former Brandonite Israel Idonije.
Like Hughes, the former Vincent Massey High School student, who became a successful defensive lineman in the National Football League and a noted philanthropist through his Israel Idonije Foundation, was a deserving recipient of the award.
In creating the honorary award three years ago, Decter Hirst’s office noted that recipients should have accomplished a great feat in business, volunteerism or by giving back to the community in another exemplary way. Current residents are ineligible, but former residents can be considered.
Unfortunately, as we lamented three years ago, it remains solely the mayor’s choice to offer a key to the city, something Decter Hirst confirmed yesterday to the Sun.
“I get to make the decision of who gets keys,” she said. “It is the mayor’s prerogative. I do consult broadly with others because I think it needs to be someone everyone sees as a role model. But in the end it is my decision.
“It depends on the circumstances. We do not look for one every six months or even every year. It just depends on the circumstances and who is visiting.”
This is not meant as a slight to Decter Hirst. No question, the mayor certainly made the right choice in both cases with keys for Hughes and Idonije. Yet that is no guarantee that later picks by this or any future mayor will be in good taste.
Certainly this was a problem for Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz in 2011, when he chose to award that city’s key to KISS bassist Gene Simmons. For that decision, Katz took considerable heat, as Simmons was arguably a poor choice for such an honour.
But we still believe it’s worthwhile setting at least one more guideline for Brandon’s key to the city: Council should have a vote on the recipient, rather than leaving it to the whim of a mayor.