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Volunteers a key part of the magic at annual Toronto Santa Claus Parade

Santa Claus waves to the crowd from his float during the Santa Claus parade in Toronto on Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015. He will be back in the city again this Sunday for the annual downtown event. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marta Iwanek

Dressing up as a skunk to march past eager crowds is among the highlights of Glenn French's long tenure as a volunteer with the Toronto Santa Claus Parade. 

The 74-year-old has played various roles over the years – farmer, clown greeter, polar bear – but the event's skunks have a special interaction with those who pack the parade route each year. 

Every few blocks, the crowd yells "roadkill" and parade performers dressed as skunks fall flat on their backs, he says. It's a particularly interactive relationship with the crowd, and part of a parade tradition. 

"It’s the parents who have been there before and they know how it works," says French, who has been a part of the parade for 26 years and finds volunteering with the event a fulfilling annual ritual. 

"(Volunteering can) bring back a memory that's positive, or a feeling that you're doing something that's creative and constructive." 

The parade, now in its 119th year, will wind its way through downtown Toronto this Sunday, drawing spectators with floats, marching bands, skunks and other characters, capped off by Santa and Mrs. Claus. 

The volunteers – a crucial part of the machinery that brings the parade to life – can sometimes fly under the radar, but those who give their time and effort say there's much to gain.

There are roughly 3,000 volunteers – about 1,750 behind the scenes helping with costumes or makeup, and 1,250 more on the day, including those marching, on floats or assisting the crowd.

"It takes a lot of volunteers to get a lot of volunteers ready,” says Samantha Twiss, costume and volunteer manager with the parade. 

The beauty of an annual event is that people can return year after year and many do, she says. And sometimes the volunteer tradition spans generations.

One of those multi-generation volunteers is 54-year-old Craig McRae, who began helping out with the parade when he was 12.

He started by assisting his father, who volunteered with the marching bands and later became the parade band director, holding that volunteer position for six decades. 

McRae took over as band director after his father retired. It's still a family affair, with his sister, wife, nephew and other relatives helping out. 

"The second you see a live band coming down the street, you can just see people starting to tap their toes, sing along and get excited," says McRae. "And that's why we do it."

Debra Polgrain, 67, grew up attending the parade as a child and – after retiring from a career in teaching – decided she wanted to be a part of it. 

She began as a marcher in 2015 – one of the Three Little Pigs – but turned herself into a makeup artist after arthritis in her knee made walking the route too painful. 

"You're putting on makeup, you talk to the people … they're just full of stories that they share with you,” says Polgrain. 

It's the atmosphere of excitement that keeps her coming back as a volunteer year after year, she says. 

"I just keep going back because of the people that you meet there. And how welcoming it all is and how excited and happy everybody is, and all the kids are so happy," she says. 

"They are just so thrilled to know that Santa is coming or that you're a clown or you're a pig and you're talking to them ... they're very, very excited about the whole thing. And I think that just keeps you going."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 25, 2023. 


Ashley Perl is a journalist with a background in sustainability science based in Stockholm and currently a fellow in the Dalla Lana Fellowship in Journalism and Health Impact at the University of Toronto.

Ashley Perl, The Canadian Press

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