By Cheryl May
Former CFL linebacker Orlando Bowen exemplifies the vital role of black Canadians in community building, creating positive change, and changing lives. His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada, declared 2015 as the Year of Sport in Canada and this February, Black History Month honours Canadian athletes such as Orlando.
Orlando is a corporate speaker, trainer and the founder of One Voice One Team Youth Leadership. He was a star linebacker for the Canadian Football League until a racially motivated assault nearly cost him his life. He experienced the crash of his sports career but subsequently launched a personal and professional journey as a dynamic speaker dedicated to motivating people to “do all we can to serve.”
He emigrated from Jamaica to Canada as a child and grew up in Toronto’s Jane and Falstaff neighbourhood. His athleticism won him an American sports scholarship, where he also graduated with a Master’s degree in information technology.
Orlando felt compelled to give back to the country that had given him opportunity, so he returned to Canada and embarked on a journey of citizen engagement, moving from compassionate giving to active volunteering and volunteer leadership, and starting a mentorship program in his workplace.
He resumed his professional football career with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and was feeling good about life: “I made it – this is it!” He continued his volunteer work, “doing everything I could to give back,” and was actively involved with Covenant House, Boys and Girls Club, and Crime Stoppers; however, an unprovoked assault in his fifth season as a professional athlete put an end to Orlando’s football career and dramatically altered the course of his life.
Orlando had gone out to meet with friends when he was confronted in a parking lot by two men who asked for drugs. The men were armed with pistols, and when Orlando rebuffed them, they retaliated by beating him severely until he collapsed.
“I was laying face down on the pavement, knowing that my life was about to end, and the thing that came to me at that moment was [that] I hadn’t given enough; I was serving but I hadn’t served enough.… It was about to be over, and all I could think was, ‘God, not like this, I’ve got too much in me to give, not like this, not like this.”
Following the assault, Orlando was treated like a perpetrator rather than a victim. He was taken to jail, drugs were planted at the scene, and he was accused of resisting arrest. He fought the charges and was acquitted; in addition, the RCMP charged the one of the police officers who arrested him with trafficking cocaine.
The event was transformative. Orlando wrote a public letter of forgiveness to the officers who assaulted him. He felt a responsibility to build “the Canada that I know I came to, that my family came to.” He founded One Voice One Team – “a leadership charity that builds hope, builds inspiration, and creates connections for young people to find their passion and use their passion to serve.”
Orlando participated on a panel of social innovators at the Canadian Race Relations Foundation’s Symposium, Our Canada: Building on Citizenship, Building for Citizenship, held November 17-19 in Ottawa. The panelists discussed their ‘Canadian journeys’ and the factors that compelled them to move beyond civic engagement to founding initiatives dedicated to social transformation.
“Here I am,” said Orlando. “I’m part of a team. Send me. I’m a small cog in the giant wheel of change that needs to happen in order for us all to be all that we can be, and with every fibre of my being, I’m committed to doing all that I can.”
President of the Toronto Chapter of the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers
View a clip of Orlando Bowen's opening remarks at the recent CRRF Symposium, where he shares his story.
Orlando Bowen recognized with Harry Jerome Award for Community Service (CBC).