Mackenzie Huckvale: Star Athlete, Keen Debater & Mental Health Advocate

In our latest Spotlight, we are featuring Mackenzie Huckvale, an accomplished grade 11 student leader at Ottawa’s Bell High School. In addition to serving as the President of the Dare to Dream Mental Health Club, Mackenzie is on the Bell High School Executive Council, and captains the varsity basketball team, while playing on the touch football, and wrestling teams. Previously, Mackenzie led the Bell High Debate Club, and is a SHAD Fellow. In our interview, Mackenzie divulges the benefits of participating in debate, shares the lessons she has learned from failures, and provides advice to grade 9 high school students.


  1. You lead the Dare to Dream Mental Health Club at school, and organized the Dare to Dream YOUth Week. What is this initiative and why are you so dedicated to mental health awareness?

Dare to Dream is a program run by the Ontario Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health that funds student-run mental health initiatives across the province. At my school, we run a club under the same name that takes on the responsibility of planning and running events centered around mental health awareness throughout the school year.

YOUth Week was last year’s main event. It was a culmination of the work we had done from the beginning of the school year by building a community where students felt comfortable talking about mental health. The goal of YOUth Week was to promote mental health action and awareness, which we accomplished through a daily themed event that engaged students in an interactive way.

In my opinion, the most exciting event of that week was the Mental Health Ally Panel. The first of its kind at my school, we brought together a group of teachers, mental health professionals, and former students to answer people’s questions about mental health. The questions we got from students led to a very productive conversation that we feel bridged the knowledge gap between the adults and students.

One of the reasons I remain dedicated to mental health awareness is because of how important it is for high school students to know they have support. High school is a difficult time where students deal with a lot of stress; by fighting the stigma that your personal mental health is a weakness, we can help students work through their struggles as well as help those around them. Creating a safe, accepting mental health environment spills over into every other aspect of the school community. People respect each other, have more empathy, and support peers in times of need.

As someone who has dealt with mental health issues both personally and within my immediate family, working to reduce stigma and build awareness is incredibly important to me. I encourage others to educate themselves and take part in the conversation to create a more open and accepting society for everyone.

  1. You play for the varsity basketball, touch football, and wrestling teams, which are diverse sports. How did you get involved in these sports and what benefits have you derived from them?

Sports have been a huge part of my high school experience. I work hard academically and use sports as a physical outlet— something that relieves a lot of stress and keeps my life balanced.

I’ve been playing basketball competitively my whole life, so naturally the high school team was my next step. Starting in grade 9, I have worked my way up to captain over the past 3 years, which has taught me a great deal about leadership. Touch football was another sport I gravitated towards because my dad and I often spend time throwing the football together and it seemed like a good spring sport to try. During my first year, we had an awesome team and went 15-0 on our way to the city championship. Now I’m taking more of a leadership role as our season picks up in May. Both these teams have great camaraderie; the bonds you build with your teammates are otherwise unattainable through taking class together or seeing them in the hallways.

The story of how I got into wrestling is a little more unconventional. I’m a pretty small girl, and when one of my friends joined out of interest, she didn’t have anyone to practice with because the whole team was full of big guys. Seeing as we were about the same weight, I went to one practice to support her. Well one practice turned into two, and two turned into more, and pretty soon I found myself, a 94 lbs grade 10 rookie, winning gold at a novice tournament. My dad always joked I was probably the first person to simultaneously win a wrestling tournament and be president of the debate club.

  1. You’ve served as the Debate Club President at your school; tell us about a formal debate, and how participating in debates has shaped your thinking.  

Formal debate is something I think every high school student should experience at least once, whether it be through a club, class project, or local tournament. It’s a great way to gain confidence with not just the apparent skills it utilizes like public speaking and quick thinking, but also more broad skills like perspective-taking, analyzing opinion versus fact, and maintaining composure under stress.

I participate in Canadian Parliamentary style debate, in which there are two teams of two: one team debates for a motion while the other opposes it. The speeches range from 3-8 minutes and alternate sides, giving everyone a chance to rebut and build points as they see fit.

The energy in a room during a formal debate sometimes feels like one of those snake-in-a-can toys. You spend so much time preparing and immersing yourself into your arguments that once you go up and are allowed to start talking, it all comes flying out with lots of passion and intensity. Really good debaters are able to harness that passion while remaining articulate and structured, as judges need to clearly understand what your arguments are.

Debate has shaped the way I look at everything. Any time I read a news article, hear a story from a friend, or get someone’s opinion, I now have the ability to look at both sides and express my thoughts on it with a more balanced and thought-out approach. I’m also now more confident that I could talk my way out of almost any situation, and I certainly have used my debate skills to get myself out of chores and convince teachers to move a test date!

  1. How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?

Everything I’ve ever organized or have been a part of has had something that didn’t go “as planned”. Speed bumps are inevitable but they never ruin the event, and sometimes the results can’t be seen physically but you have to accept that they still have an impact on people, big or small. It’s part of the process and although I’m not the biggest fan of failure, I definitely see its value in slowly improving things over time.

My favourite failure was a Dare to Dream event where we planned to have tons of people play with a parachute as part of our “Be a Kid Again” campaign that aimed to reduce stress. We set up music, got all the equipment, and were stoked to get started… except not one person showed up and actually stayed to play with the parachute.

It had a happy ending though because after we organizers decided we would just play with the parachute ourselves and we had tons of fun with it. After that day, we re-evaluated how we wanted to target people and our next event was far more successful.

  1. What has been the best experience/memory from high school thus far?

It’s hard for me to pinpoint one specific experience from high school so far because I try to look at my time in high school as one big experience that I’m always trying to build on. I remember some of the small things more than the monumental ones, and in the end I value almost everything I’ve done in high school as shaping who I am.

If I had to choose one, I’d probably say my school’s Leadership camp this year was one of the best memories to date. Every year, our student council hosts 150 students at school over the weekend to promote development of leadership skills in a camp-like structure. I’ve gone every year since grade 9 and this year I was chosen to be one of the group leaders who we call “Builders”. Builders run all the activities and set the tone for the weekend, so being a part of that group after watching them for so many years was really special. It’s so cool to go from participating and watching an event happen to actually being part of the magic yourself. Seeing the younger kids develop their leadership skills throughout the week just like I did when I first came to camp is super rewarding. I plan on being a builder again next year and hope the excitement I felt previously carries over into my “graduation” from leadership camp.

  1. What advice would graduating-from-high-school Mackenzie give to grade-9 Mackenzie?

Grade 9 Mackenzie was so eager and energetic about being involved in school, getting good grades, and finding a good group of friends. She stressed about not having those things or that she wouldn’t be able to do everything she wanted without overloading herself. I’d tell grade 9 Mackenzie that it is possible to do it all, and that she’s capable of a lot more than she sometimes thinks. Having said that, I would also caution her that there is a limit, and the expectations she puts on herself are less important than asking for help when she feels overwhelmed.

I’d tell her to not worry about “finding her passion” because it’s okay to like a lot of different things, and that having a passion for leadership and opportunity-seeking in general is just as valid. The world is her oyster, and while not having an exact plan might feel scary, that feeling isn’t going away so you might as well get comfortable with the uncertainty.

Also, to wear her hair down more, both literally (it looks cute) and metaphorically… high school flies by so don’t be afraid to make the most of it.



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