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Toronto Latin-American and Caribbean communities feel left out of Pan Am Games

TORONTO - Hordes of athletes from the Americas and the Caribbean competing in next summer's Pan Am and Parapan Games might find themselves without a cheering crowd of local supporters from their home countries, a community leader says.

Some members of Toronto's Latin-American and Caribbean communities say they've been largely left out of preparations for the Games, with only superficial efforts made to include them.

And with only a year to go before the opening ceremony — the Games kick off July 10, 2015 — they worry there isn't enough being done to drum up enthusiasm for an event that should have thousands rallying behind their compatriots.

"There is no buzz in the community, the community is not aware much of the Pan Am Games," said Manuel Rodriguez, president of the Toronto Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

While organizers have met with some community leaders, Rodriguez said many — particularly within the multicultural media — feel their support is being taken for granted.

"If they don't do anything about it at the moment, I think there's going to be the Pan American Games without the Pan American people," he said.

Hetty Lawrence, president of the Commonwealth of Dominica Ontario Association, said the organization had to reach out to the Games committee, not the other way around.

The association has asked organizers to attend a community picnic this weekend, she said.

"To tell the truth, I don't hear about the Pan Am Games out there, I don't hear it," said Lawrence, who also sits on the board of the Council of Caribbean Associations Canada. "So that's why we took it on our own and invited them to come to our event."

Organizers have been playing up Toronto's diversity as they promote the Games, which will bring athletes from 41 countries and territories to Canada's largest city, and deny there's only been a token effort to involve community leaders.

A two-day celebration that began Friday officially marked the one-year countdown to the Games and featured salsa dancers and musicians with Caribbean roots alongside athletes and other speakers. Consuls general for all countries, not just those competing, were invited, organizers said.

"We have been working very closely with leaders among the different Latin American communities," spokeswoman Kate Bascom said in an email.

"For instance, we’ve hosted numerous business opportunity seminars with the Toronto Hispanic Chamber of Commerce highlighting different procurement, employment and other opportunities to get involved. We’ve worked closely with the different consulates in the same way. As a result, we have many Latin American staff who are playing a prominent role in the Games."

Friday's event drew throngs of people — many of them children — to Nathan Phillips Square outside Toronto city hall.

Officials unveiled a massive clock that will track the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the opening ceremony. Several in the crowd posed for photos in front of the 5.5-metre clock and with the Games' mascot, a rainbow-quilled porcupine named Pachi.

Saad Rafi, CEO of the Toronto 2015 organizing committee, said outreach has been a focus in the lead-up to the Games.

"You don't ever want to ignore the diversity and inclusion that this region has, because it's so huge," he said.

Rafi said he believes the Games will draw huge crowds of new Canadians cheering on their home countries as well as their new one.

But Rodriguez dismissed that prediction as "wishful thinking."

He said there has been little advertisement or coverage outside of the mainstream media because multicultural outlets are expected to promote the Games for free. That means few people in those communities even know about the event, much less how to participate, he said.

"They said that they're going to be inclusive and we're going to be a part of this, but the only part that they want is volunteer work," he said.

Pan Am organizers said their marketing team "has been placing paid advertisement in multilingual media outlets highlighting events such as our call for volunteers and this weekend’s our one year countdown festivities."

But a marketing consultant involved in the outreach efforts said only a few thousand dollars had been earmarked to buy ad space in dozens of small outlets.

Milind Shirke, director of Ethos Communications, which specializes in marketing to diverse communities, said organizers need to find "respectable amounts" of money to spend on advertising in multicultural newspapers and television, because that's where many immigrants get their news.

"There's definitely a strong media consumption of their own media versus the mainstream media," he said.

In order to attend, those communities "would need to be provided some basic information in terms of pricing, venues, options, discounts, because they're also value-conscious.... That's where the media comes in."

Shirke said it's also important to include other communities, such as the Toronto region's large south Asian population, whose home countries are not competing in the Games.

"A large segment of the non-Pan Am communities are not engaged and that is the largest segment, versus people from the Caribbean or Hispanic cultures that are here," he said.

Almost half of Toronto's residents are immigrants, with China and the Philippines listed as the most common countries of birth, according to the 2011 National Household Survey.

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