I’ve spilled a fair bit of ink discussing the ways in which I sometimes feel out of place in Canada and also diving headfirst into Canadiana in an attempt to remedy that.
My latest hoser venture involved going to a “bongspiel” aka a weed-centred curling tournament in Wiarton, Ontario—a small town of about 2,000—in the dead of winter. Wiarton, for the uninitiated (like me) is known for Wiarton Willy, a groundhog who does his thing on Groundhog Day in an annual ceremony that seems to be the talk of the town. To be totally honest, I didn’t even think groundhogs were real creatures until I visited this town.
My experience with curling is limited to one time in 2010 when I went as part of a team building exercise while working for a community newspaper in North Vancouver, BC. There’s a photo of me looking very serious and ugly, wearing a obnoxiously big toque while lining up a rock (I still don’t grasp the mechanics of curling).
I always assumed curling was a bit dull—not unlike Canada itself. So perhaps it’s not surprising that the sport is a source of national pride, something we regularly dominate during the Winter Olympics. Another very Canadian thing about curling is that it goes hand and hand with boozing—a Canadian team featuring an Olympic gold medal winner got booted out of a bonspiel in Red Deer, Alberta last fall for breaking broomsticks and cussing while wasted.
So I didn’t really know what to expect from this tournament. At first I was reluctant to go, chalking it up to another gimmicky event trying to capitalize on weed legalization. But we decided it might make for good video, so we piled into an SUV and nearly died while driving the three hours to Wiarton from Toronto during a blizzard. It was so cold that when we got to our motel the toilet water in one of our producer’s rooms was frozen.
Then we headed to Wiarton & District Curling Club where we met Ted Ratcliffe, 38, one of the organizers for the event. Ratcliffe explained that a bongspiel is just a bonspiel (a curling tournament) but “cannabis related.” At the end of a bonspiel the tradition is buy the other teams a drink, but for the bongspiel, we were allowed to sub in a drink for a toke. Or do both.
It lasts all day, starting at around 9 AM.
We got there on a Friday night, the night before the bongspiel, which was also a mixed curling night at the club. There were younger and older men and women, some of whom seemed a bit reserved towards us—we overheard someone jokingly refer to us as “fake news.”
Club president Gord Ironmonger was delightful. He is the mustachioed small town Canadian dad we all secretly crave. The man belongs in a Tim Hortons commercial. Ironmonger told us how curling is his way of staying connected to his kids. He catches up on their lives while driving to and from the rink. Ironmonger doesn’t get high, but he said he didn’t have a problem with a bongspiel as long as everyone followed the rules. “This is kind of a groundbreaking event,” he said in his calming, sing songy voice that never varied in tone or volume.
Given that we were in a small conservative town and a lot of curlers skew older, I was skeptical that the curling club members would be open to the bongspiel. In fact, Ironmonger warned us that there were “a lot of seniors living here who are very set in their ways, don’t like change.” Apparently his mother-in-law is one of them and disapproved of the whole thing.
I kind of expected a lot of seniors to be absent on the day of the bongspiel. But when we showed up Saturday morning, I saw that I had made a misjudgment. The older generation of curlers was there, working the guest list, handing out free thermometers for growing weed, selling (and wearing) custom bongspiel t-shirts, preparing egg salad sandwiches and other food items for the masses. It all had a very wholesome church bake sale feel, if church bake sales included people openly rolling joints.
Because there’s no cannabis consumption allowed at recreation centres, everyone had to go outside to a tiny tent to blaze. And that’s where I met up with The Shed Crew—named after their go-to hangout spot: a shed. Dylan McMullin, who donned a raccoon tail hat, and Andy Elliot were like something out of Fubar (I imagine—I’ve never actually watched the movies.) I’m talking thick Canadian accents.
These guys were not curlers. But they are cannabis enthusiasts.
“Here’s the thing. We’re into cannabis, but it’s the curling community who embraced cannabis for the first time since legalization,” McMullin told me. “So—we’re curling.” He flatly admitted he would’ve gone to a spelling bee if participants there were down with weed.
Originally I had planned on observing the curling rather than partaking but the Shed Crew with their complete lack of curling experience convinced me to join their team. I didn’t feel like I would be dragging anyone down if I sucked, which was a guarantee.
Our opponents included teams like Three Buds and a Spud, The Rolling Stoners, Stoned Cold Rocks, and a group of white dudes from Brampton called Curry Hard.
Me and the other Shed Crew members shared a couple joints and went back in to curl, which is where I met Doug. He was also on our team and was one of two decent curlers we had. He kept bossing me around but in an endearing and funny way. He is no spring chicken but he loves getting stoned. To an impressive degree. At one point he asked if I wanted to go outside and do a dab with him. I declined since I was on the job after all, and dabs fuck me up. Doug seemed flabbergasted at the concept of being able to buy weed from the government.
“Fifty years buying drugs on the side. We just always bought dope and were hiding it from everybody. Now it’s a huge industry,” he said.
As for the curling itself, I tried throwing the rock and sweeping a few times but tapped out after I tripped on a stone and fell over, McMullin screaming at me all the while.
I still ended up with one of the prize winning bongs, which was given to me by someone else who actually won it but didn’t need a bong. There is something so strangely touching about a complete stranger giving you their brand new bong. It was another kind gesture in a series of them over that weekend. I told myself I wouldn’t actually use the bong, but tbh I use it daily now.
Chatting with the other young people there, I found out a few things: people in small town Ontario really love to grow their own weed, curling builds community, and curlers get rowdy. The bar was open from 11 AM but everyone was still standing by the time we left at around 8 PM. It culminated with a performance from McMullin’s band, The Great Canadian Swampstompers, and a dance party DJ’d by the only other woman of colour I saw that weekend. Remarkably nobody barfed or greened out by mixing booze and weed.
Sometimes people will surprise you.
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