Barrie Dragon Boat Festival: What Is It & Why Do We Celebrate It? (August 19th)


COurtesy Barrie360.com Staff Published: Jul 27th, 2023

Every year, Barrie hosts The Dragon Boat Festival. This festival is a time-honored cultural event celebrated in several Asian countries. Rooted in ancient Chinese history, the festival is rich in traditions and legends that have been passed down through generations. 

Traditionally held on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, this annual celebration marks a significant cultural heritage that fosters unity, remembrance, and the pursuit of righteousness. 

Join us as we explore the origins and evolution of the Dragon Boat Festival ahead of Barrie’s event on August 19.


Dragon boat racing is the most prominent and captivating aspect of the Dragon Boat Festival. The boats themselves are long and slender, with intricately carved dragon heads and tails, symbolizing the spirit of the dragon. 

In ancient times, these races symbolized the efforts made to find Qu Yuan’s body and honor his memory. But over the centuries, dragon boat racing transformed from a ritualistic practice into a sport, attracting participants and spectators alike. 

Today, the sport has become a symbol of teamwork, perseverance, and community spirit.


The Dragon Boat Festival originated in ancient China over 2,000 years ago. The festival’s earliest roots can be traced to the legend of Qu Yuan, a renowned poet, and statesman during the Kingdom of Chu. 

Accused of treason by political rivals, Qu Yuan was banished from the country. As a final act of protest, Qu Yuan threw himself into the Mi Lo River, where he drowned. 

Local fishers rushed to the river in their boats, attempting to rescue his body before the fish devoured him. They beat drums, threw rice dumplings, and splashed their paddles to scare away the fish and any evil spirits that might harm his body. 

To commemorate Qu Yuan, the tradition of dragon boat races and zongzi (rice dumplings) emerged, becoming integral components of the festival.


Zongzi, pyramid-shaped rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves, is another major part of the Dragon Boat Festival tradition. 

These delicious treats are traditionally filled with rice and fillings like pork, red bean paste, or dates before being steamed. Zongzi represents the food offerings made to Qu Yuan to prevent fish from devouring his body in the river. 

The preparation and sharing of zongzi have become a cherished tradition during the festival, fostering family bonding and unity.

Apart from dragon boat racing and zongzi, other customs have also become associated with the Dragon Boat Festival. These may include wearing perfumed sachets to ward off evil spirits, hanging moxa leaves, and using an iris to ward off diseases.


Our teams at Barrie 360, Kool FM, and Rock 95 were invited to try their hand at dragon boating with other members of the media and it was quite the workout.

Central Ontario Broadcasting Team try out Dragon Boat

Usually, Dragon boats are manned by a crew of 22 people, though numbers can vary. With a crew of 22, there are 20 paddlers, a drummer/caller, and a steerer. 


The 20 paddlers sit in pairs down the length of the boat facing in the direction they are going. The first pair of paddlers (sometimes the first 2 or 3 pairs) are the pacers. They must synchronize their strokes with one another so that the remaining paddlers can match their pace. The rockets are the three back pairs and are the strongest paddlers. They use deep, powerful strokes to pull the boat out of the water and give the team an extra boost. The engine is all the paddlers between the pacers and rockets. They help propel the boat forward by giving it more power. 


The Drummer is seen as the heartbeat of the dragon boat. Using a rhythmic drummer, they beat out a rhythm that synchronizes the paddlers. The drummer also calls out commands using hand signals and oral commands. Commands include: 

  • Paddles Up: This is used to get the paddlers ready to start paddling. Paddles are raised up in front of them with the paddle blade about an inch from the water. 
  • Take It Away: This command means it is time to start paddling.
  • Let It Run (or Let It Ride): This means that paddlers should stop paddling. Paddles are rested on the rim of the boat as the boat continues to glide. 
  • Back Peddle: Paddlers move the boat backward with a backstroke. 
  • Brace: Paddlers extended their paddles over the water to create more surface area and stabilize the boat in rough conditions or when someone is moving. 
  • Hold: This means that the paddlers need to stop the boat by placing their paddles up and down in the water to create resistance and slow the vessel. 


The steerer can also be called the sweep, steerperson, helm, and other similar names. They control the direction of the boat from the aft (back of the boat) using a long straight oar. Steerers can also call commands. 


As Chinese communities spread across the globe, the Dragon Boat Festival traveled with them, embracing cultural diversity and fostering cross-cultural understanding. Today, this remarkable festival is celebrated in many countries worldwide, such as Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and even in Western cities with large Asian populations.

In Canada, the first Dragon Boat Festival was proposed in 1946. The event was to be held in Vancouver to celebrate the province’s 60th Anniversary. However, the first race wasn’t held until 1986. 

Watching the race down False Creek, Canadians became enamored with the sport. Soon the races were being held all over the country and in 1993, Dragon Boat Canada was formed. Three years later, the country played host to the International Dragon Boat Festival Club Crew World First Championships. Taking first place, Canada was the first ever team to win the races outside of Asia. 


The Dragon Boat Festival serves as a unifying force that brings people together to remember their heritage, strengthen family ties, and appreciate the wisdom of the past. The time-honored traditions associated with this festival highlight the resilience and determination of the human spirit, while also reinforcing the importance of social harmony and mutual respect.


The Dragon Boat Festival is not merely a historical event; it is a living cultural heritage that continues to thrive across borders and generations. 

Rooted in the tale of Qu Yuan, this celebration epitomizes the values of loyalty, bravery, and unity, and serves as a reminder of the importance of upholding cultural traditions in an ever-changing world. 


The Barrie Public Library will be hosting its 19th annual Dragon Boat Festival this year. Held at Heritage Park on August 19, the event, sponsored by Tim Hortons, will bring teams together for a fun-filled day of camaraderie and fundraising while racing dragon boats on Kempenfelt Bay.

The festival begins with the ceremonial “Waking Of The Dragon”, followed by lots of food and refreshments, a vendor market, and, of course, intense dragon boat races. 

The library started the Barrie Dragon Boat Festival in 2003 to strengthen community spirit and raise funds for the library as well as local charitable and not-for-profit organizations. Since then, the Festival has raised over $2 million and helped more than 60 charities, including the Library and many other local organizations. 

In fact, Chris Vanderkruys, the library’s Director of Business and Development, says the festival helped them raise funds to open the Painswick location in south Barrie and most recently, a smaller facility in the Holly neighbourhood.


If you would like to participate in the races, you can register or join a team on the Barrie Public Library’s website. Team rosters will be finalized on August 1 so be sure to sign up fast. 

Teams can be made up of 17 to 26 members 14+ but must have at least 8 female paddlers. Registration fees are $1200 and teams have to commit to raising at least $500 for the charity of their choice. Vanderkruysexplains, “Whether it be the library, the cancer society, RVH, hospice, or anything else, you have to raise that much for charity.”

The Library is also looking for sponsors, community partners, vendors, and volunteers for the event. For more information on the event, head to the Library’s website or sign up for the Paddles Up Barrie! newsletter

Patricia Dent

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *