Steve Firth won’t be removing his kilt anytime soon. The 37 year-old resident of Lethbridge, Alberta is the brainchild behind Kilt-Up 4 Cancer, a 366-day fundraising initiative in support of cancer awareness. Recently he spoke with Celtic Life International about sportin’ the tartan for a great cause.

What is your own ethnicity/heritage?
I was born in the UK, and moved to Canada about 7/8 years ago. Our family originated historically in the borders of Scotland in and around the Roxburghshire region; here the Firth family are recorded in Scotland as early as the 600s. The great Scottish diaspora saw many of the Firth family spread all across the world, many arriving in the US, but the decent into England happened around the early 1800s, and the name started showing up in Northern England in and around the turn of the century (1800). Despite having such a long history, the Firth family name is only held by a relatively small number of people – many of whom are in the US. I have always been passionate about being Scottish – despite an awkward quirk of fate in being born in England.

When and why did you get involved with this initiative?
I started Kilt-Up 4 Cancer in March 2013, and it is to be a year long venture. It originated in the recent sickness and death of my Uncle, the development of prostate cancer in my Grandfather, and the struggle of a friend with the same. The latter is particularly troubling, as he gave up the chance for health as his grandson was also dying: he felt that he would not have been able to share his grandson’s last few months with him properly thought the sickness which accompanies the chemo which was suggested. My grandfather’s story is equally interesting: despite difficulty in urination, and constant unease, and despite regular check ups with Christie’s (a cancer hospital and specialist), he was discover to have stage 4 prostate cancer. The cancer is slow developing, and he is 88, but I can’t help but feel that the medical industry let him down – especially considering the 4 years he had been complaining about symptoms. When I look into the stats for men, it was clear that much less fundraising and research was being done for men than was being done for women; this is partly because of the way in which breast and ovarian cancer are, to quote Sassoon, ‘mentionable place[s]’ – whereas some obscure gland that creates a guy’s seminal fluid and a pair of ugly dangly bits, are not. Moreover, much of the increase death rate in men is due to a lack of screening and a lack of awareness in general. As the fairer gender take regular screenings and smears, there is no regular check up for guys, and though a prostate check is performed during regular check-ups, the problem with men is that we tend to avoid regular check-ups!

What is the mandate?
We wish to raise the profile of Male-specific cancers, raise awareness of same, and try to raise funds to go toward male-specific cancer research. Our primary objective is to make young men think about testicular cancer, and older men think about their prostate. We wish to encourage young men 16 and up to get their partners to check their testicles as some sort of ‘play’ – ensuring that it is done as part of something fun, rather than something done in the shower –though it is important to note we encourage ANY testing/checking; we are merely trying to make checking a ‘fun’ thing to do. By wearing the kilt, and the associative notions of ‘what is under the kilt’ we are hoping that individuals will draw a connection between male-specific cancers and kilts – in much the way ‘ribbons’, and the pink shirts have become associated with breast cancers. That kilts are worn by manly Scotsmen and burly guys just plays into the imagery. We want to demonstrate that the Scots can lead the offensive into the battle against male-specific cancers, and if such ‘manly’ men can be concerned about their health, and get themselves checked out, then so can other men the world over. All funds raised are processed though the Canadian Cancer Society, and we work closely with them in the creation of events and activities. The Canadian cancer society are very active in our community, and have a lot of links with companies and individuals who are seeking to become active in cancer fund raising events. The Canadian Cancer Societies connections and experience are profoundly appreciated and help secure the success of this campaign and others like it.

What kinds of events are involved?
We have a sponsored ‘year long’ kilt wearing, booths at the Canadian Highland games in Calgary and Canmore, and we are working on a fashion show in Lethbridge featuring the kilt and hopefully local clothing companies. We are anticipating a family geo-cashing event (with clues to be male-specific cancer related), and also a Celtic music gig. We are also working together with the Scottish Tartan Authority to create a Lethbridge University tartan; the design of which will be open to the university students, and will hopefully be incorporated into some of the fine arts faculty classes. All of these events will be heavily advertised and feature awareness raising elements. They are open to all, and some will have participatory elements. There are the usual raffles, Facebook competitions, and the sale of merchandising including our very special coffee cup-kilts and bonnet pins.

What has the response been like so far?
The response from the university, city, and press has been very enthusiastic. We have had a disappointment on one of our events due to an unfortunate fire, but we are looking forward to summer events, and increasing the awareness in the city and posting photographs on Facebook and the Internet to increase our profile. The response from the Facebook page has been very interesting, and we are seeing a lot of support from all over the world – plus an interest from many quarters into opening it up worldwide. This is something we would love to see done – but would need highly motivated individuals. We are looking for sponsors for all of our events, and the more money or items we can be gifted, the more events we can run. Fund raising is an important part of the campaign, and we are looking to conduct as many events as we can substantiate.

How might others get involved?
Anyone can join in! We have events being planned throughout the year, and we are looking for people to assist with organising the events and the logistics of those events. We are also looking for people to turn up to events and enjoy the fun. Anyone with any interesting ideas is also welcome to contact any of us through Facebook, or through our dedicated e-mail account. The coffee cup-kilts are hand made, as are the bonnets – so we are looking for volunteers to help manufacture them both; it takes only basic sewing skills. Anyone that can make posters, man raffle benches, and otherwise help raise funds, is also appreciated. We are hoping that all of the people who come to the events can do so in some sort of tartan, kilt, or plaid – the more we can project the tartan as a visual event, the more people will associate it with our movement.

Aside from this undertaking, how else are you involved with the Scottish community?
Like most Scots, I celebrate the Poet’s day, tartan day, and St. Andrew’s day, but we have a smallish Scottish community here in lethbridge. Up ’til recently, because of student poverty and lack of time, I have been unable to join in the games and highland events held in Calgary because to traveling expenses and time off. There are a number of highland dance troupes here in Lethbridge, but they are mostly for younger girls – so that counts me out! I am learning the pipes with hopes to march in the Legion Pipe band in the future.

Are we doing enough to promote and preserve Celtic culture generally?
I fear not. Much of the Gaelic culture is watered down here in the west of Canada, with only a few people trying to maintain it. There is such a wealth of celtic history and culture available, but is a little lost on the new world – who are split between those who embrace the past, and those who like to embrace the new and exciting. The idea of having ceilidhs here would be considered quaint and anachronistic, and thus result in a lack of attendance. Though Canadians do tend to celebrate their origins on bigger days, on a day to day basis, they have little interest. I have tried to organise a gathering (rather than a games) here in Lethbridge, but without major support and financial assistance, the paperwork, permits, and rents are prohibitive. Plus the organisation that even a small fayre would need is significant. Despite the fact that I have some help through the Canadian Cancer Society, such an event would be pretty much down to me entirely. With the demands of my school, Honours Thesis, and Grad-school application, I do not really have enough time to donate to such things, and as such, I had to dismiss them as fund raising opportunities. Here in Lethbridge, the Galt family (who opened the city museum) were responsible for the majority of the Scottish activity and community. However, the Galts moved out to Vancouver some time ago, and Lethbridge has been without its founding members for some time. I have to speak with the museum to co-ordinate the possibility of some activity with them for the campaign – but I am told that they try to incorporate many Celtic events: they host a Burns’s supper and occasionally the dance troupes. Andrew Hilton’s, a liquor store here in town, hosts Scotch whiskey single malt tastings throughout the fall, and these are also well attended; but I fear they are attended for liquor reasons, rather than a celebration of Scotland’s second favourite export. As Canada is a nation of ethnic variance, it is not unexpected that part of the community has little interest in Celtic heritage. Here in the West, the lack of support for Gaelic culture is much more pronounced than in the East – where there is a profound underpinning Celtic culture. Consequently, we tend to see much more interest in Celtic life in larger places such as Calgary and Edmonton. There we see Highland games held, the occasional Celtic shop, but you need to travel East, or to Vancouver, before you see tradesmen specialising in heraldic work, kilt making, and the types of stores which perpetuate elements of Gaelic culture. That said, we do have a tilted kilt in Calgary and Edmonton – which I suppose is an attempt to blend some Celtic culture with a North American experience.

What can we be doing better?
These sorts of questions are difficult to answer, because they assume that people want more of what we have to offer. Certainly, back home, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales have re-invented themselves in terms of tourism and Celtic culture – thus we see gift shops and heritage centres everywhere. Also, we have a huge history back home, where people’s families have been involved century after century. In Canada, we have less of that, and though people proudly proclaim that they are Dutch, or Irish, or Danish (insert family ancestry here), in reality they are mostly 3rd generation Canadian (or similar), and have a slight notion that their surname hints toward an ancestry in somewhere-not-Canada. Of course, those that still feel a strong link to their past, and that are able to travel are still able to find some elements of home, but it tends to be more of an appreciation, than of a dream. One of our sponsors sells high quality Scottish foods and curios – but despite him being well advertised, there is little customer base for these specialities; many of the cultural foods either cannot be imported through restrictions, or do not sell well because of their curious nature. Those that are imported, are made from permitted food stuffs and often do not taste the same as back home (and are often disappointing and expensive). Moreover, there is a lack of accuracy and care over some of the items which are available: in Lethbridge there are only two or three places that sell Guinness, and of those, none of them store it correctly, pump it correctly, cool it correctly, or serve it correctly. I’m not sure how we might tackle all of these little problems – but certainly advertisement, support of local Celtic bands, activities like mine (which tie our culture into something contemporary); ironically, the tilted kilt seems to have done more to raise the awareness of Celtic culture than anything else – which is a shame, considering what has resulted. Perhaps a nationwide event during the Poet’s day, or more effort at Tartan day – one of my supporters suggested we organise a nation wide office/workplace kilted day – once every quarter. I think this is a wonderful idea, and I’d love to jump all over it, I’m just not sure how I would go about it. For us, it would be perfect – raising the awareness ten fold and more – but as to how to get companies (and those individuals with Celtic heritage) on-board would equally be difficult; and all that supposes that those individuals even have a kilt. Much success has been achieved with respect to St. Patrick’s day in the past, and I feel that in order to promote our heritage, some event like that which people can muster behind needs to be invented (thus was Tartan Day wrought, I suppose). City wide parades like those in New York may also step up awareness; as do the games. Sadly, the games are hugely expensive and take a great deal of organising.

What’s next on your Celtic agenda?
I have nearly 3/4 of a year left in this event, and during this event, I will be looking for someone to take over the mantle so that it can be run again next year with a series of different events and activities. Next year I start my masters in Philosophy, and so I am not sure if I have the time available to donate too much to Celtic culture. However, I fully hope to take my PhD in Edinburgh in 2016 or so – so I will be returning there for a short spell. I’m not one to plan too far into the future, but I would like to get more involved with the games in Calgary, and more involved with the community here – perhaps promote it a bit. I will be taking what I will learn from this years event, and seeing what events worked best and promoted the best results. But, I’m still trying to figure out why some of my photos on Facebook have gone viral, and others get very few viewing – despite being posted at similar times on similar days!