Toys for the North bring holiday cheer to Northern Canadian communities

Toronto Santa Claus Parade president Peter Beresford helps spread holiday cheer with Toys for the North.

Photo: Masterfile

As president of Toronto’s Santa Claus Parade, it’s Peter Beresford’s job to make children happy.

But it seemed unfair to him that so many kids in Canada’s north — right in Saint Nick’s own backyard — wake up on Christmas morning with no toys to unwrap. Yet, for thousands of kids in remote, ?y-in communities, where jobs are scarce and families are struggling, that’s o ften the case. Even if they’re lucky enough to have a northern store within snowmobile distance, prices are exorbitant, with milk running up to $7 a litre. And the nearest toy store is 2,000 kilometres away. “So it’s not just a case of having the funds to purchase a toy,” says Beresford. “It’s the accessibility , too.”

In his 30 years volunteering with Canada’s largest outdoor entertainment event, which draws up to a million spectators each November (plus another 3.8 million TV viewers nationwide), Beresford has been approached countless times by charities looking to share Santa’s spotlight. But nothing ?t. Then, during a brainstorming session in 2010, the one-time McDonald’s executive threw out an idea to help expand on the organization’s mission: “Wouldn’t it be great for the Santa Claus Parade to raise toys and funds for children in the north, where Santa lives?”

Toys for the North snowballed from there. Beresford’s ?rst call was to the RCMP, which handles policing in most northern communities and sometimes has a hard time gaining the trust of locals. They were thrilled to come on board as a partner. Then the Canadian Toy Association joined, and brought along some of its largest members, including Spin Master, K’nex, Mattel, Hasbro and Crayola. Thomson Terminals, a Toronto-based trucking company, o rdered up free storage and delivery. First Air and other northern airlines wanted to pitch in, too. In its ?rst year, Toys for the North collected $50,000 worth of toys, including donations from parade-goers. In 2011, they boosted that to $80,000, plus 64,000 diapers from Huggies and $22,000 worth of wrapping paper from Hallmark.  

The Canadian Air Force even agreed to ?y the toys to Iqaluit and Yellowknife on-board a transport aircra dubbed “Santa’s Here.”

Local RCMP officers in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories then sorted and wrapped the loot, and worked with elders in 44 communities to determine which families were most in need. Sergeant Greg Sutherland led the Nunavut operation last year, and delivered toys in Kimmirut, a violence-plagued outpost of 425 people a half-hour’s ?ight south of Iqaluit. On the night before Christmas, he and his partner, who donned a Santa suit, decorated a komatik (or sled) with wrapping paper and ?ashing lights, attached it to a snowmobile rigged with caribou antlers and delivered toys from house to house. “ The kids we targeted were in homes with not much income, and they probably wouldn’t be getting any new toys,” says Sutherland. “By the end of the night, we had 30 kids following the sleigh through town.”

This year, Beresford and his team will once again be delivering toys to Nunavut, along with northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and Labrador — “communities that aren’t on the radar screen,” he says. They’ve been stockpiling building sets, sleds, art supplies, animal ?gurines and more since last January, and added Lego to their list of donors for 2012.

Beresford is con?dent they’ll surpass $100,000 in toys to ship north this year, plus hundreds more donated at the November 18th parade, when federal Minister for Health (and Nunavut native) Leona Aglukkaq once again rode in a reindeer-drawn sleigh to help promote the chari ty.

“You have no idea the impression that these toys make for these families,” says Beresford — and I swear his eyes twinkle as he says it, just like the jolly old elf himself.

A version of this article appeared in our December 2012 issue with the headline “Toy Story” p. 48.