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Canadians celebrate countdown to 2010

It was like the whole country turned into Vancouver for a day.

It was like the whole country turned into Vancouver for a day.

The one-year countdown to the 2010 Winter Games began with parties across Canada, as unusually warm, wet, B.C.-like weather melted away the snow in a number of winter-weary cities. The bells chimed on Parliament Hill as a burst of blue light illuminated the Peace Tower with the Games logo on Thursday evening.

The famous five-ringed Olympic flag was hoisted so that it will flutter in the shadow of Parliament's main entrance for the coming year.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean, and an array of Olympic heroes took part in a cross-country celebration that will culminate a year from now in Canada hosting the Olympics.

Even Mother Nature played along.

In vast swaths of Canada the temperature surged above freezing. The skies were grey. And it rained. In short, revellers across the land had a rare chance to experience a typical winter day in Vancouver.

The prime minister high-fived the mascots for the Vancouver-Whistler Games at a ceremony in the room where he usually presides over his weekly caucus meetings.

"We hope that Canada's Games will capture the heart of our great nation as we come together, from coast to coast to coast, to cheer our athletes as they go for gold," Harper said in a statement.

"With glowing hearts, we will show our athletes how much we believe in them and the entire world what it means to be Canadian."

Across town at Rideau Hall, groups of schoolchildren came out to a party where the governor general introduced past Olympic heroes Elizabeth Manley, Gaetan Boucher and Nancy Greene Raine, now a senator.

The children cheered as the Olympic mascots danced along the road leading from Jean's official residence.

The governor general unwrapped a replica of the Olympic torch and used it as a motivational tool.

"Do any of you have a dream? We all have a dream, don't we?" she asked the kids.

They responded by chanting loudly in the affirmative, so Jean added, "Yeah, I knew it. For the athletes, the thing that represents their dreams is the torch - the Olympic torch. . .

"What do you say if we all unveil the torch together?"

A man involved in designing that torch was at an event in Montreal.

Daniel Deschesnes, an engineer with Bombardier Inc., listed the technical concerns faced by the design team and easily identified their No. 1 worry: "Fire. We want a beautiful flame, a flame that will never go out."

In Calgary, the countdown was celebrated by lighting the Olympic cauldron from the 1988 Winter Olympics held in that city.

Josephine Benedek, 76, was a volunteer at those Games 21 years ago and her name was drawn to re-ignite the Olympic flame at Canada Olympic Park in a sunset ceremony.

"When Calgary won the bid years before 1988, I was so excited and the very next day I wrote a letter and said 'I'll volunteer for anything,"' Benedek said.

Many of Canada's athletes looking for gold in 2010 were launched by the legacy from the 1988 Olympics.

"We've been supporting winter sport here since the '88 Games, but the 2010 Games has just helped revitalize everything that's going on here and just added a whole new element," said Guy Huntingford, CEO of Winsport Canada which was formerly the Calgary Olympic Development Association.

In Toronto, hundreds braved rain and brisk winds to celebrate the countdown at Nathan Philips Square.

Fans were treated to an acrobatic performance from the Flying Canucks ski and snowboard aerials trampoline team. The Olympic mascots - Sumi, Quatchi and Miga - mugged for the cameras.

The day's festivities were highlighted by 85-year-old David Grant, who was selected to become Ontario's first torchbearer.

The Second World War veteran broke into an impromptu rendition of O Canada, and dozens of onlookers happily joined in.

"I've been a torchbearer my whole life," Grant said at the presentation.

There was also above-freezing weather in Atlantic Canada.

In Halifax, there was also plenty of sleet and a fog so thick visibility was reduced to a few metres.

There were no spectators at the Halifax event - save for two public-relations officials and a commissionaire armed with a bucket of salt.

Mayor Peter Kelly took part in a subdued flag-raising ceremony at city hall amid a slippery mix of slush and ice on the public square known as the Grand Parade. As he hoisted the flag aloft, it was drenched in sleet and immediately wrapped itself tightly around the flagpole.

Despite the poor turnout, Kelly said people are getting excited about the Games and the Olympic torch relay in particular.

"I'm sure people will be wanting to be part of this historic event as the ones who took part in 1988," he said as he took refuge under an umbrella.

Elementary-school children sang O Canada and shook noisemakers at Fredericton City Hall. Randall Haslett of Fredericton is hoping he'll have a chance to carry the Olympic torch for a second time.

He was 43 when he jogged through Hartland, N.B., with the torch as it headed for the 1988 Olympics in Calgary.

Olympic organizers asked Canadians everywhere to make some noise at 6 p.m. in honour of the one-year milestone.

In Newfoundland, musicians played a symphony from the boats in St. John's harbour, while a week's worth of community sporting events have been going on in Manitoba.

In Calgary, the last Canadian city to host an Olympic Games, they dusted off the torch from the 1988 Winter Olympics to light their own Olympic cauldron.

The weather was far colder on the Prairies, and much closer to seasonal norms.

Despite the chill, the Saskatchewan government encouraged residents in a number of communities to get out and make plenty of sound in the 6 p.m. national noise-a-thon.

The host province also held several major events. The Olympic torch was unveiled early in the day in Whistler, B.C., the host of the nordic, alpine and sliding events in 2010. Later in Vancouver, IOC president Jacques Rogge attended an official celebration event at the Richmond Oval.

On Parliament Hill, Greene Raine and Manley spurred partygoers to make some noise.

Mounties raised the Olympic flag just east of the Peace Tower, by the path vehicles use to approach Parliament's main building.

But the crowd of about 100 thinned out quickly as people scurried off the Hill to find indoor comfort.

By the end of the day, as the festivities died down, it was cold again in Eastern Canada.

-With files from Canadian Press reporters Kevin Bissett, James Bisson and Donna Spencer

 
 
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