The Canadian International Dragon Boat Festival takes place every June on the waters and shoreside of False Creek in Vancouver. It is North America's largest and most competitive dragon boat festival with over 200 crews competing from around the world.
The festival, started by Vancouver's Chinese-Canadian community, introduced the traditional annual Chinese Duanwu Festival (summer solstice) to Canada as a cultural outreach program to share Chinese culture with the city's multi-cultural population. The dragon boat festival was created to promote sport and Chinese culture, and a meeting place for Vancouver's culturally diverse population to build intercultural harmony and understanding.
Visitors experience a variety of ethnically themed food, cultural entertainment, fine arts and children's programming reflecting Vancouver's cultural diversity, and some of the world's most competitive dragon boat races. The festival has grown to become one of Vancouver's largest family summer events, attracting paddlers ranging in age from high school students to 'grand dragons' in their 80's, and visitors including families of all ages and backgrounds. The festival celebrates community, culture, and competition by connecting visitors with dragon boat racing, cultural displays, and community organizations that support accessible activity and programs.
Volunteers made trips to Hong Kong in 1984 to investigate how to import teak dragon boats. The City of Vancouver Centennial Commission endorsed the plan for an inaugural festival as part of the official civic anniversary festivities. The local committee contacted the Hong Kong Tourism Board, and with the financial assistance of businesses connected to Hong Kong, brought six teak wooden dragon boats built in Hong Kong to Vancouver. These boats were on display at the Marine Plaza Zone when they were not being used for practices, competitions or ceremonial purposes in support of the Hong Kong Pavilion.
In 1986, the Chinese Cultural Centre of Vancouver organized and hosted the first authentic dragon boat festival in North America, and invited prominent community leaders to be patrons. This committee maintained the fleet of 9 teak dragon boats after 3 more were purchased, under the leadership of Dr. Wallace Chung and Dr. S. Wah Leung. The first races adapted the Hong Kong festival's racing rules for use on False Creek, which, like Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour course, is subject to tidal currents. These volunteers organized instruction and training for novices who had never paddled before out of the False Creek Community Centre, home of the recently started False Creek Racing Canoe Club. The popularity of dragon boat racing began to grow quickly- initially there were around 30 teams competing, but this number continued to grow each year to over 100 by the early 1990s.
In 1998, an Asia-Pacific food fair along with performances and entertainment at the Plaza of Nations inspired organizers to expand the dragon boat festival to include a cultural component like in Hong Kong. In 1989, the festival invited and hosted international dragon boat teams to compete, starting with a women's team from Australia and a men's team from Great Britain. Over the next few years, teams flew over from Indonesia, Japan, England, Germany and Australia to compete against teams from Canada and the USA. In recent years, international teams have returned to Vancouver as the festival has grown, with teams participating from around the world, including from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the US, Great Britain, Australia, Singapore, Germany, the United Arab Emirates, and many other countries from around the world.
In 1996, 10 years after Vancouver's first race, the 1st IDBF Club Crew World Championships was convened on False Creek during the festival. The 1996 Club Crew World Championships marked the first time that a state-sponsored dragon boat team from China competed outside Asia. Crews competing also flew in from Australia, New Zealand, Germany and England.
The initial races were held on the water just to the west of the Cambie Street Bridge. The original race course of 6 lanes were 640 m in length, the same distance as in Hong Kong's Tsim Sha Tsui harbour. The number of lanes increased to 9 as the number of boats available for racing increased, and as registered teams grew from 18 in 1986, to 100 in the 1990s, to over 150 in the 2000s, to 200+ today. The distance also was changed to 500 m, keeping with the development of international racing standards.
The land portion of the festival has also varied over the last 2 dozen years. Historic venues include the Plaza of Nations on the north shore, Creekside Park on the east shore and Creekside Community Recreation Centre on the south shore. The current Festival site runs along the False Creek seawall starting from Concord Pacific Place on the North shore, to Creekside Park on the East shore, to the Creekside Paddling Centre on the South shore.
The festival's main divisions are in Premier Mixed and Premier Women. These two divisions each feature a sequence of 500 m races, with the fastest teams then racing in a 2,000 m turns race, where up to 18 boats race in a time trial. Up to 42 Junior Mixed teams compete in a separate division, featuring a sequence of 500 m heats, semi finals, and finals. Other divisions include a Premier Open division. Specialty races include the International Cup (visiting teams face off against Canadian teams in a sequence of races leading up to a 200 m knockout final), the Barrier Free Canada Cup (100 m knockout sprint raising money for seven charities), Breast Cancer Championship, U24 Cup, Grand Dragon's Cup, and Cancer Survivor race.
The festival's producers, the Canadian International Dragon Boat Festival Society also operates a series of races and runs Dragon Zone Paddling Club out of Creekside Paddling Centre and Creekside Community Centre. Dragon Zone is a year round paddling facility on False Creek that offers dragon boat, flatwater kayak and canoe, and outrigger programs for people of all ages, abilities, and competitive levels out of a fully accessible facility. The Society also runs the Dragon Zone Youth Regatta (race for youth in early May), the Dragon Zone Spring Sprint (race in 10 person dragon boats in early May), the Dragon Zone 500 M Regatta (BC's second largest race with over 100 teams in early June), and the Steveston Dragon Boat Festival (last race in the Vancouver dragon boat race calendar in late August).
Over 50 teams regularly train out of Dragon Zone year round, including recreational or competitive teams. The club also offers introduction programs for dragon boat, youth summer flatwater paddling camps, one day programs, community paddling days, and other cultural and paddling programs in partnership with other community organizations.