Sports | On sports-based reconciliation

2017 North American Indigenous Games to be held in Toronto

This summer, the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) will be held in Toronto and surrounding municipalities, taking place on the traditional territories of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, Mississaugas of Scugog Island, Six Nations of the Grand River, the Huron-Wendat Nation, as well as the traditional homelands of the Métis Nation of Ontario. From July 16 to 23, the Games will draw over 5,000 Indigenous athletes between the ages of 13 to 19 from across North America to compete in 14 categories including canoe/kayak, box lacrosse, and rifle shooting.

The opening ceremony on July 16 will set the tone for the eight day long gathering in which cultural, culinary, and artistic events will take place alongside athletic competitions.  According to the Toronto 2017 organizers, the NAIG is expected to be the largest continental gathering of Indigenous peoples participating in sporting and cultural events.

The NAIG is expected to be the largest continental gathering of Indigenous peoples participating in sporting and cultural events.

Since its inauguration in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1990, the NAIG has been held eight times across the continent, with teams representing their province, territory, state, or region. The 2014 NAIG, the last time the Games were held, took place in Regina, Saskatchewan. Incidentally, Team Saskatchewan boasts the most successful NAIG team with six overall team titles under its belt. This year, teams are expected from all ten provinces and three territories, and 13 teams from the U.S. will also be in attendance. The Games will use the venues that hosted the 2015 Pan Am and Parapan Am Games in Toronto, as well as others located in Hamilton and Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, the largest Indigenous reserve in Canada.

More than a series of games

According to previous organizers, the NAIG aims to “promote the holistic concepts of physical, mental, cultural, and spiritual growth of individuals” and “demonstrates unity among Indigenous Peoples.”  In an interview with The Daily, Allan Downey, Assistant Professor at McGill’s History Department, added that gatherings such as the NAIG are especially important in terms of opening up dialogue between youths from different Indigenous nations.

“With these mass [sporting] events you’re bringing Indigenous youths from all over the place  most likely there’ll be a few teams from my community in central B.C.,” Downey said. ìAnd those youths will be able to come to Southern Ontario and see Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe [the traditional territories on which Southern Ontario is located] culture, ceremonies, traditions, their regalia.”

Resurgence, as a grassroots movement, seeks to reconnect Indigenous people with their land, culture and communities.

“[These events] expose [Indigenous youths] to various Indigenous nations that they’re not generally exposed to, which creates an international dialogue,” he continued. By “international dialogue,” Downey referred to dialogue between Indigenous nations.

Downey also added that sporting events for Indigenous youths can “engage youths with Indigenous resurgence.” Resurgence, as a grassroots movement, seeks to reconnect Indigenous people with their land, culture and communities. According to Downey, resurgence for Indigenous youth can involve “re-empowering [Indigenous youth’s] culture, ceremonies, traditions, governance structures, […] languages through sports.”

“[Mass sporting events] expose [Indigenous youths] to various Indigenous nations that they’re not generally exposed to.”

As an important avenue of athletic development for Indigenous youths, the NAIG has been a cornerstone of an Indigenous sport movement. Arising from literature and activism on sports-focused development this movement aims to teach leadership, community-building, initiative-taking, and other life skills to Indigenous youths through sports, according to Downey. Apart from national and provincial organizations devoted to Indigenous athletics, certain NGOs have also been involved in promoting sports in Indigenous communities.

While Downey believes in the numerous health, social, and cultural benefits of these sporting events and gatherings, he warns that a critical eye must be cast on sports and these development initiatives, particularly those administered by NGOs.

“We don’t think [critically] of the values that are ingrained and taught through sports. [These values] are actually very Eurocentric ideas of sportsmanship, gender, governance structure, even language […],” Downey told The Daily, adding that Indigenous communities have their own values associated, taught, and celebrated through sports. “[These Indigenous values] are very well-established and have been under attack for a really long time through various colonial policies. Are [sports for development programs] just adding to the problem?”

NAIG after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

The 2017 NAIG will be the first edition of the Games since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) published its findings two years ago about the nature and impact of the residential school system. Along with its full report, the TRC features 94 calls to action to “redress the legacy of residential schools” and “advance Canadian reconciliation.” Article 88 in particular demands governmental support for hosting the NAIG. To make the Games more accessible (particularly to lower income and rural youths), this support specifically includes the allocation of funds for “provincial and territorial team preparation and travel.” The aim of the call is, in the words of the TRC, to “ensure long term Indigenous athlete development and growth.”

As a tribute to TRC, a central component of the 2017 Games is a campaign called #Team88, aiming to raise awareness about and access to sports for Indigenous youths through community tours, museum exhibits and more. One aspect of #Team88, for example, is to highlight the stories and accomplishments of 88 NAIG athletes.

Following the calls from the TRC, both the Governments of Ontario and Canada have pledged to help fund the Games, providing $3.5 million each. Moreover, the CBC has also committed to producing a minimum of a hundred hours of live and on-demand coverage, content on cultural events at the NAIG, as well as documentaries to highlight the accomplishments of the participants. Regarding this coverage, Downey expressed his heartfeltness for Indigenous families who will be able to watch their youths compete.

The 2017 NAIG will be the first edition of the Games since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission published its findings […].

“I’m not here to go against that, because this is their experience and that’s valid. I can imagine it’s exciting. I can imagine myself in that situation when I was younger  it would’ve been an exciting moment,” he told The Daily.

Downey added, however, that this optimism does not prevent him from being concerned about the discourse surrounding reconciliation.

“Definitely there are positive things that are coming out of the TRC and [the process of] reconciliation,” Downey told The Daily. Still, he said, one ought to be critical about the implications of reconciliation. “I would say I’m cautiously optimistic but still a realist.”

Currently, the NAIG Council, the body governing the NAIG competitions, is in the process of organizing bids for the 2020 Games. Non-Indigenous people are encouraged to attend the Games and associated events as spectators, volunteers, or even sponsors.


To find out more, you can visit www.naig2017.to.


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