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Burnaby Mountain debate team off to international contest

The Burnaby Mountain secondary students, Grace Jin and Jamal Dumas, at the Queen’s High School Debate Tournament held in Kingston, Ont. last week. Their performance earned them a spot at an international tournament at Oxford University in May. - Contributed photo
The Burnaby Mountain secondary students, Grace Jin and Jamal Dumas, at the Queen’s High School Debate Tournament held in Kingston, Ont. last week. Their performance earned them a spot at an international tournament at Oxford University in May.
— image credit: Contributed photo

Two Burnaby Mountain secondary students returned from Kingston, Ont. this week as Canadian junior debating champions.

Perhaps just as remarkable is the fact one team member, Grace Jin, only joined the school debating club six months ago.

Jin and teammate Jamal Dumas, who has been debating since Grade 8, competed last weekend at the Queen's National High School Debating Championships held at Queen's University.

The two Grade 10 students, both 15, competed mostly against Grade 11 and 12 teams from across Canada, many of them from independent schools.

"It was like, nerve-wracking but it was really exciting," said Jin, who had only competed in two major tournaments and a handful of regionals before that.

Along with her lack of experience, the pair also faced a lack of crowd support, as the only West Coast team there, and not having coach Frankie Cena with them. Instead, he provided advice and encouragement by phone and over Skype throughout the tournament.

"We didn't go in with very high expectations," Jin said. "We did our best. We couldn't control anything other than that."

Their best was enough for them to win five out of six rounds. The debating contest called for participants to argue for whatever position was given to them. Only one topic was given to them in advance with all others announced giving them only 10 minutes to prepare for the half-hour round of debate.

The subjects were wide-ranging. Jin and Dumas had to present arguments on why the West should fear a resurgent Russia, why athletic scholarships should be abolished, why non-violent criminals should be kept out of jails and why the state should be liable for deaths due to homelessness.

Jin said she was anxious but Dumas' experience and background knowledge helped calm her nerves.

"Jamal's so good. I'm so lucky to be partnered with him."

The Burnaby duo was the top junior team in Canada and as a result, is one of three Canadian teams (the other two are from Ontario) to represent the country at the International Competition for Young Debaters being held at Oxford University in England on May 5.

"It was pretty amazing," Jin said. "Overall I thought it was a really great learning experience. We put so much work into it."

Cena said as far as he knows, this is the first time a Burnaby team has qualified for an international debating tournament and the first for a team from B.C. at this competition.

"To get there, they had to go through the older students," he noted.

The team's standings were impressive—ninth overall out of 80 teams, and first out of 16 junior teams (under 15 years of age at the start of the school year).

Cena, 20, a Burnaby Mountain grad and former debating club member, has continued to coach the club as a volunteer while a third-year commerce student at the University of British Columbia.

He noted that most of their competition hails from private schools who can afford paid coaches and to cover travel expenses to tournaments.

Jin and Dumas paid their own way to Kingston, an expense of almost $3,000. And now they need to raise money to get themselves and Cena to England.

Cena estimates they'll need a minimum $4,000 for flights, meals, one night of accommodation and other expenses.

Anyone interested in sponsoring the team is asked to contact Frankie Cena at 778-999-9480.

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