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North American Indigenous Games take place in Toronto

Sports and culture gathering features young Indigenous athletes from across Turtle Island

The 2017 North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) took place last week from July 16 to 23, on the traditional territories of the Huron-Wendat Nation, Metis Nation of Ontario, Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation, and Six Nations of the Grand River. The nations served as community partners in this event which welcomed 5,000 athletes from 22 teams, competing in 14 different sports over the course of seven days. The Indigenous athletes, in their teens and early twenties, arrived in Toronto from across Turtle Island (North America) to represent their nations and their provinces, territories, or states.

The Indigenous Games were first envisioned in the early 1970s, during which the first Native Games were held in Alberta. In 1977, a proposal for the Indigenous Games was brought to the Annual Assembly of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples by now-Grand Chief Dr. Wilton Littlechild, of Ermineskin Cree Nation, and passed unanimously.

The purpose of the Games was to facilitate inter-nation sportsmanship and relations by bringing together Indigenous youth from different nations to make new friendships and renew old ones. In the context of settler-colonialism and the resulting multi-generational traumas inflicted upon Indigenous communities, the Games provide leadership and growth opportunities for Indigenous youth, and continue to serve as a process of healing and community spirit-building between Indigenous nations across the continent.

The organising of the 2017 Games prioritized Call to Action #88 made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which advocates for “all levels of government to take action to ensure long-term Aboriginal athlete development and growth, and continued support for the North American Indigenous Games, including funding to host the games and for provincial and territorial team preparation and travel.” This was part of a greater emphasis on sports as a tool of Indigenous healing and strength, and reconciliation through sport. The theme of this year’s Games was Team 88, a legacy campaign to, “showcase Indigenous contributions to sport in Canada, create a tangible opportunity for all Canadians to engage with reconciliation, and create lasting role models for future generations,” amongst other things. 

Over the past year, however, the Games have faced significant organisational challenges. Stephen Kwinter, President of the Board of Directors of the Toronto 2017 North American Indigenous Games Host Society, said in an interview with the Daily that “usually, host societies have years [to organise the games], but we were dealing [with] […] a tough time frame of less than one year to actually organise the Games…we were able to put together, in very short order, a balanced, professional team.” The organising team was made up of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, and was advised by Indigenous national leaders on how to proceed in a respectful and reconciliatory manner.

“And you have to understand about our budget. Our whole budget was about 11 million dollars, for five thousand athletes. You take a look at the Invictus Games, which has a much larger budget, and they had three years to develop the Games, and 45 people to do it,” said Kwinter, referencing a Paralympic-style sporting event for soldiers and veterans with disabilities, to be held in Toronto later this year. “ Most of the times, in our lead-up, [we] had 14 full-time staff. That shows you what happens when you have confident, excellent, special people. I’m very proud of them.”

The Games have certainly been worthy of that pride. The opening ceremonies of the Games, which took place on July 16, set the tone for the rest of the week’s events. The two-hour event, taking place at York University’s Aviva Stadium, provided moments of pure joy, pride, and entertainment, featuring musical artists such as Taboo (of Black Eyes Peas fame), and the popular electronic music group, A Tribe Called Red, who had the stadium on their feet and dancing. However, between celebratory moments, community leaders and Chiefs speaking at the event were unflinchingly political in their understandings of the Games as a testament to Indigenous resilience in the face of centuries of genocide and oppression.

Chief Stacey Laforme of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, told the audience in his speech at the opening ceremonies, “this is the way our peoples should always be. Happy, proud, and ready for the future. We must remember that we don’t have to change to fit into society, the world has to change to accept our uniqueness.”

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde closed his speech with an encouraging message to Indigenous youth, “Canada just finished acknowledging a birthday of 150 years, and a lot of us said we’re not going to really celebrate, but we’ll participate because we’re going to acknowledge that in spite of 150 years of colonisation, and in spite of the cultural genocide from the residential schools, and in spite of the control of the Indian Act, we’re still here as Indigenous peoples. And it’s you young people, and your children and grandchildren, that are going to write the next story over the next 150 years. And it’s going to be bright, and you’re going to do it in a great way.”

Over the course of the games, many young people did take the opportunity to create history, and make their mark on the world stage. The 2017 Games were the first in NAIG’s history to feature women’s lacrosse, which was ultimately won by team Eastern Door & the North. Additionally, in women’s swimming, four girls from the Yukon team collectively took home nine medals – the product of 16 hours of training a week, according to swimmer Cassis Lindsay. Outside the realm of arenas and medal counts, athletes have been using the opportunity to create long-lasting international (between Indigenous nations) connections with their peers, and represent their communities in the public eye. As emphasised by many of the community leaders supporting the Games, this week has presented a unique and valuable opportunity for Indigenous youth to take the spotlight and inspire other young Indigenous peoples, and encourage them to pursue their dreams. Chief Ava Hill, of the Six Nations of the Grand River, reminded the young athletes that they “are all role models, and all winners just by being here. You are role models for the younger ones watching you, and you are ambassadors for your nation, so wear it well.”

While the Games came to an end on Saturday, the hope is that its legacy will be indelible and longstanding. For the athletes, this has been perhaps the first of many opportunities to represent their nations and teams. For spectators and non-Indigenous people, the Games have been an insightful departure from the monolithic narrative of Indigenous suffering which occupies the mainstream media’s attention, and have also provided better critical awareness of reconciliation than that which has been peddled by the Canada 150 campaign.

The narrative of reconciliation is still one which needs to be thoroughly and critically understood, especially in the face of the increasingly obvious government ineptitude in its handling. The Games presented an opportunity for the next generation of Indigenous peoples to impact the socio-cultural relations between the Canadian state and the nations whose land it occupies. As for audiences, Kwinter’s hope is that the Games served as the first step in understanding reconciliation for many who may not have previously known about such efforts until now. “For the average non-Aboriginal person, it’s a question of white noise – they know about [reconciliation efforts] but don’t want to deal with it. The NAIG provides a forum for dialogue, on the basis of cooperation and and reconciliation. If you don’t know about them, you can’t respond to them. [The Games] give us the great opportunity to showcase Aboriginal cultures and achievements…we want to celebrate the future of these achievements, and we want to do so as a cooperative effort.”