In Canada’s centennial year, 10 teenaged Indigenous boys from a residential school carried the flame for the Pan-Am Games 800 kilometres from St. Paul, Minn. to the gates of the stadium in Winnipeg where the games were being held.
It was an incredible accomplishment, and they were justifiably very proud of what they had done. But instead of carrying the flame the final 400 meters to light the torch for the games, as you might expect, the boys were turned away at the door and barred from entering the stadium because they were Indigenous.
One of the boys remembers being put on a bus and returned to the residential school, just as the games got under way.
The heartbreaking story is retold in the final report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) into the residential school system, with one final detail.
Thirty-two years later, when the Pan-Am Games returned to Winnipeg, the boys were invited back to run the last 400 meters. The boys were by then men in their 50s, but that moment in 1999 offered some measure of healing to an injustice a generation before.
Sport offers that sort of opportunity. It can’t heal all wounds, of course, but it can provide a way for those who may not agree on all issues to find a common topic on which they can communicate.
And communication is the first step towards reconciliation. It is an important lesson to remember as the North American Indigenous Games are held this week.
We cannot have a truly just and progressive society until the crimes against Indigenous people, past and present, are addressed. The living conditions and sub-standard education problems Indigenous communities face must be fixed. It is a stain on Canada that we allow such conditions that bred inequities to continue.
True healing will take a very long time. Healing will take a lot of work, a true commitment to the process by all involved and undoubtedly there will be some pain along the way as old wounds are reopened.
But that doesn't mean we should shy away from it, or skip the smaller things along the way to aid in the healing, such as sport and honouring the athletes from Indigenous communities.
For too long, the accomplishments of Indigenous athletes have been overlooked in Canada. The TRC made five recommendations in its final report relating to the role of sport in aiding healing and support for Indigenous athletes as part of a path toward reconciliation.
One of those recommendations called for all levels of government to support the North American Indigenous Games. The games, held every three years, are a chance to showcase indigenous athletic talent, and for all of Canada to celebrate their achievements.
Such government sponsorship is, of course, important, but there are also many corporate and other sponsors from across the Canadian economy, including Unifor. This widespread support shows the importance of these games and the recognition of the power of sport in healing.
I would urge all sponsors of the games to think about ways to extend that effort well beyond this week.
We all have a responsibility, I think, to use whatever influence or resources we have at our disposal to push for improvements in the lives of Indigenous peoples and their communities. The sponsors of these games are answering the call of the TRC by helping ensure a successful week of games, but there are many, many more recommendations in the TRC’s report that also need to be addressed.
The real work to address the issues facing Indigenous communities does not take place at a high-profile sporting event. From my own experience it takes place away from the cameras at the bargaining table securing jobs for local Indigenous workers, particularly for women and the skilled trades, and it takes place by pushing Members of Parliament in one-on-one meetings to improve the living and learning conditions for Indigenous youth.
These are the kinds of things Unifor has done, and I challenge other sponsors of this week’s games to think of way they can do more, as well.
As a society, we must all commit to continuing to roll up our sleeves and do the hard work to improve the lives of all Indigenous peoples.
In the meantime, for this week, let’s allcelebrate the incredible accomplishments of the athletes at the North American Indigenous Games.