Jack Cheng couldn’t have known it then, but after the Grade 10 student from Calgary had beaten 19 other finalists to win the 2016 Canadian Geographic Challenge on June 5, his trip to Ottawa was far from over.
In fact, Cheng’s visit to the capital was extended by a day, because it turns out there was a pair of important fans of his performance and grasp of Canadian and world geography on the Hill.
During a “VIP tour” of Parliament specially arranged for Cheng — and timed for 3 p.m., when the House of Commons had finished sitting for the day — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan came to meet the young geographer, as well as Royal Canadian Geographical Society CEO John Geiger and director of education Ellen Curtis.
The PM shook Jack’s hand and congratulated him on his success in the Can Geo Challenge, and told him never to stop exploring and experiencing the country — the best way to learn about Canada. “Don’t stop reading all those books,” said the PM, “but the only way to really get to know Canada’s geography is by canoe. We’ve got to get you in a canoe now, Jack!”
“We’re so proud of you,” said Duncan. “Tell your parents that I think you’re just awesome.”
Cheng says he was thrilled to meet PM Trudeau, and immediately called his parents with the news. “He didn’t seem like I imagined a politician. You can tell he really loves geography too," he said. "And Kirsty Duncan is so cool, because she’s a medical geographer. Those are my top interests.”
Last year’s Can Geo Challenge champion, Anzo Nguyen (coincidentally also of Calgary), met Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek. Trebek, who was recently named Honorary President of the RCGS, is a long-time supporter of the Challenge in particular, and was key to the Society’s ability to hold a live, in-person final for the students in 2015 and 2016.
“We’re so excited to have Jack as our new national champion,” says Geiger, who explained that the involvement of prominent Canadians such as Trebek and the support of the Prime Minister for the Challenge and geographic literacy in general is a great honour to the Society — and crucial to its mandate of making Canada better known to Canadians and to the world.