For a crowd that probably hasn’t attended many big parties over the past two years, it certainly took to the Ottawa Riverkeeper Gala like a duck to water.
Even threats of rain on Wednesday night didn't deter more than 400 attendees from hitting the outdoorsy bash at 50 Sussex. The venue offered sweeping views of the Ottawa River which the nonprofit organization has been closely monitoring, protecting and improving for more than 20 years.
The evening featured a live performance from Grammy Award-winning musician Alex Cuba from Smithers, B.C. There was also an online auction that showcased artwork donated by local artists, unique river adventures, food and drink packages, and a 15-foot custom-built sailboat from Boatworks Ottawa that was conspicuously on display that night. The auction doesn't end until later today but organizers estimate the gala grossed about $280,000.
CTV’s Power Play host Evan Solomon donned a pair of camo fishing waders for his returning role as master of ceremonies. “They said it was ‘river chic’,” Solomon told his audience with a grin. The TV journalist has been an integral part of the gala since its start, after being recruited by “fearless leader and visionary” Geoff Green, chair of the Ottawa Riverkeeper board and founder and president of the Students on Ice Foundation.
The gala, now in its 10th year, introduced Ottawa’s new Riverkeeper and CEO, Laura Reinsborough, to the crowd. The award-winning enviro-activist joined the organization last September.
Insurance Bureau of Canada returned for its fifth year as presenting sponsor, represented by Craig Stewart, vice president of federal affairs. The cause is a great fit for IBC, which has an interest in watershed protection that reduces the chances of flooding and property damage.
One of the evening highlights was watching widely adored Daniel Alfredsson become the newest Honorary Riverkeeper. Before heading to the stage to deliver his acceptance speech, he made a quick detour over to his wife, Bibbi Alfredsson, to give her a quick kiss.
The retired hockey player told everyone how impressed he was by the Indigenous drummers and singers who had performed earlier. “I could feel their energy. If we would have had that in our locker rooms instead of electronic dance music I think I would have a couple of (championship) rings on my hand now. Well done, well done.”
The married father of four played all but one of his 18 seasons in the NHL with the Ottawa Senators. As a natural leader, he was team captain from 1999 until 2013. He’s won Olympic medals, been awarded a meritorious service cross and has landed an honorary doctorate from Carleton University. Moreover, the Swedish-Canadian citizen has been a long-time champion for mental health.
“Water has a special effect on us,” he said. “It lowers our stress level and our anxiety. I think we all felt stressful times through COVID, and how we can go out for walks, slow down our lives and feel nature again, which is special.”
One of the reasons why Alfredsson and Bibbi decided to make Ottawa their home was the accessibility to outdoor spaces. “We won the lottery when it comes to that.”
Another reason was the strong sense of community. Alfredsson hails from a country that’s been traditionally less charitable. He really only became exposed to philanthropy when he moved to Ottawa.
“To be able to help out and make a difference in the community is way more rewarding than scoring a big goal in a playoff game (even if it was against Toronto). And feeling that sense of people sticking up for each other, that’s one of the reasons why we chose Ottawa as our permanent home.
“People here look after each other when it’s needed. They step up for each other. It’s just like successful hockey teams; it takes more than just one or two stars to be really good. Everyone has to chip in and do what they can do to make a difference.”
The Ottawa Riverkeeper Gala is regarded as one of the most popular and social fundraisers of the spring season. The chatter was particularly loud and lively that night as attendees spent time catching up with one another. “It’s great to see people again (most of you anyway),” Alfredsson quipped.
Supporters included Sheila Whyte and Michael Moffatt from Thyme & Again Creative Catering, Mark Saunders and Angela Grant Saunders from Saunders Cider, Dentons office managing partner David Little, Abacus Data CEO and Ottawa Riverkeeper board member David Coletto, and Canada’s Forest Trust founder and CEO Gary Zed, who's connection to the gala goes back to its beginning. Also seen was Ottawa Riverkeeper board member Franklin Holtforster, who retired the day before as president and CEO of Colliers Project Leaders.
On display was a canoe that Ashbury College head Norman Southward was very proud of. It was crafted by students from the Ottawa private school with guidance from traditional artisan Pinock Smith from the Anishinaabe community of Kitigan Zibi.
The gala was preceded by the Chair's Reception held inside 50 Sussex and sponsored by CN. The reception saw Sen. Rosa Galvez presented with the Water Leader Award before she had to rush back to the senate to defend a bill about environmental protection.
Notable guests included Treasury Board President Mona Fortier, NCC president and CEO Tobi Nussbaum; Perry Bellegarde, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations; and Jeff Westeinde, president of Zibi. He was at the reception with his mother, Shirley Westeinde, and wife, Colleen Westeinde, who is co-chairing with Michel Drouin a new $5-million campaign that will see Ottawa Riverkeeper vacate its Centretown office and move into NCC’s New Edinburgh Club Boathouse located along the Ottawa River.
“It might be where we gather this time next year if all goes well,” said Green.