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THE PLACES / IN THE SHADOW OF HISTORY Add to ...

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At 10 minutes to seven Atlantic Time, Saturday evening, Nov. 21, 2009, 19-year-old Emma MacEachern will reach a trembling hand - of that there is no doubt - to accept the Olympic torch and run with it - though they once thought she might never even walk again - down historic Great George Street to light the Olympic flame at the Cradle of Confederation.

She does not keep her mantra - Step by Step - in her head, but tattooed on her right wrist as a constant reminder of a vow she made to herself three years ago, the day she left hospital.

If the swift little forward could not now live her Olympic dream of playing for the Canadian women's hockey team, she would switch dreams to one day walking again and perhaps even skating again - never suspecting that the dream itself would change and that she would, in fact, still have that precious Olympic Moment.

Only it would be different.

When she takes that torch Nov. 21 she will be near Province House, and she will run over the very ground that, 145 years ago, the Fathers of Confederation walked as they came to the 1864 Charlottetown Conference that led, three years later, to the very creation of the country that will host the 2010 Winter Games.

The modern Olympics were founded in 1896 on the belief, not long upheld, that it was possible to escape politics - and even national flags - for a few weeks every four years.

How appropriate, then, that Emma MacEachern's 300-metre run, which she fully intends to run, will take her down to the harbour where the delegates from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and, later, "the Canadas" arrived on Sept. 1, 1864 - only to be totally ignored by the population of Charlottetown.

They had better things to do.

The "Olympics" were in town - Slaymaker & Nichols' Olympic Circus, featuring acting dogs, monkey performances and, in a wonderfully ironic and accidental slight to the politicians gathering, the Snow Brothers were to put on a daring display of balancing feats.

The purists didn't approve. "What possible advantage can be obtained by viewing the whimsical freaks?" asked the Protestant & Evangelical Witness, when there were other matters "truly valuable in life" to consider at such a time. Attending the events being held in a huge tent erected on a vacant lot on the corner of Fitzroy and Queen Streets, the paper said the Olympic Circus would "dissipate the mind, and poison it with a vain and frivolous taste" and lead to a "general depravity" among the populace, which then amounted to around 7,000 citizens.

The scolding went nowhere. When the contingency from "the Canadas" arrived on Sept. 1 - including the likes of John A. Macdonald, Thomas D'Arcy McGee and George-Étienne Cartier - the colonial secretary, William Henry Pope, had to commandeer a rowboat to go out to meet the S.S. Queen Victoria, in local lore greeting the future Fathers from a seat on a pickle barrel.

If true, it was somewhat appropriate, as the seeds for Canada were laid here in Charlottetown during those September days when the various colonials debated the merits of bonding together to avoid being swallowed up by the ambitious and powerful military force to the south. Days filled with speeches were followed by evenings - some lasting onto dawn - of glasses filled with champagne and brandy.

"The tongues of the delegates waggled merrily," Canada West delegate George Brown, proprietor of the Globe, wrote to his wife Anne.

"What other country," asks local historian Catherine Hennessey, who has co-authored an upcoming book on the 1864 gathering, "can say they partied themselves into existence?

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