North American Indigenous Games are not just sports, but a cultural exchange

By John Chidley-Hill

THE CANADIAN PRESS

The 2017 North American Indigenous Games are bringing a message of healing to Toronto, not just through participation in sports, but a cultural exchange.

Marcia Trudeau-Bomberry, the CEO of the Games, emphasizes the cultural exchange that will happen not just between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people, but First Nations from across the continent. That process starts with Sunday’s opening ceremony at the Aviva Centre on York University’s campus.

“Reconciliation is a two-way street,” Trudeau-Bomberry said Monday. “It’s about non-Indigenous people taking that step to learn about Indigenous people, about the culture, about learning about some of the athletes and where they’ve come from and what they’ve gone through to make it Toronto.

“Everyone’s got a different story to tell, different challenges and different barriers.”

Running from Sunday to July 23 in Toronto, Hamilton and nearby Six Nations, Ont., the North American Indigenous Games _ NAIG for short _ are for athletes 19 or younger competing in 14 sports including track and field, basketball, baseball, boxing, golf, lacrosse, swimming and soccer, among others. Canadian teams are broken up by province or territory, while the United States are broken up into 13 regions.

Although the inaugural NAIG was held in Edmonton in 1990, this summer’s edition has taken on new importance after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Call to Action No. 88 requested that all levels of government support the Games to help heal the legacy of residential schools and ongoing systemic racism in First Nations communities.

On the surface, NAIG encourages the physical health of its competitors, but Trudeau-Bomberry sees the event as a multi-layered approach to healing Aboriginal communities.

“When we look at the path to wellness, we look at it from a holistic point of view, that all your various elements of being need to be well,” said Trudeau-Bomberry. “We look at physical well being as just as important as your spiritual well being, as your emotional well being, your mental well being.”

Part of that is helping non-Indigenous people experience

Aboriginal culture and sports. To that end, all competition and cultural events except the opening and closing ceremonies have free admission.

But NAIG is also an opportunity for Indigenous youth to meet each other, share their common experiences and appreciate that they’re not alone.

“You introduce a kid to a sport and they thrive and they have this community and this feeling of inclusion that will stay with them for a lifetime,” said former Olympic boxer Mary Spencer, who competed in basketball at NAIG in 2002. “These Games give these kids who are left out of so many different areas that opportunity to feel that sense of belonging in the realm of sport.

“It’s an absolutely incredible event that’s happening in Toronto and all of us in Ontario, Indigenous or not, can be proud that we’re hosting it.”

The NAIG opening ceremonies in Cowichan, B.C., (2008) and Regina

(2014) reflected the culture and history of the coastal and plains Indigenous peoples respectively. Trudeau-Bomberry and the Toronto NAIG organizing committee have had to meet the challenge of representing all the different Indigenous experiences within Ontario in Sunday’s ceremony.

“We want to give it due justice,” said Trudeau-Bomberry, pointing out that the province contains sizable Metis and Inuit populations in addition to First Nations. “As we deliver the Games we want to give a good representation of Indigenous cultures across Ontario.

“We also understand that in contemporary Canadian culture that urban centres have become home to a large number of Indigenous cultures that are from all over (North America).”

Saskatchewan has the most medals all time with a total of 1,894, well ahead of Alberta (1,056) and Manitoba (849).

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