On a cold morning in early March, Marcia Trudeau was the first to arrive at her office in Mississauga — as the chief executive of the North American Indigenous Games taking place in Toronto this summer, she has a lot to prepare.
“Reconciliation is a two-way street,” Trudeau says. “The Games give us the opportunity to expose non-Indigenous people to our culture.” She says holding the Games in a diverse metropolis like Toronto — the biggest city ever to host the event — presents a unique opportunity to promote Indigenous athletes and their regional customs and traditions. For many non-Indigenous attendees, it will be their first exposure to a strictly Indigenous sporting competition.
Trudeau says she is proud that Indigenous athletes that may not otherwise have had the opportunity will gain international recognition through the Games.
Kendra Potskin, 17, is one such athlete. She’s one of seven girls from Prince George, B.C., who will be representing the province’s under-19 volleyball team this summer. Potskin also participated in the 2014 Games in Regina.
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She says she wouldn’t be the same person without volleyball: “A lot of my friends come from volleyball and they were a really big influence on me. You need to learn how to treat people and how to work together on a team.”
A NAIG social impact study of the Games in 2014 found that 52 per cent of participants believed the event influenced their decision to pursue further education. Ninety-seven per cent of participants said they planned to maintain a healthy diet after the Games, and 69 per cent said the Games improved the way that others perceived them.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended the federal government support Indigenous athletic competitions such as the NAIG in its 2015 Call to Action, and the government heeded the call, contributing $7 million to the Games.
- Rebuilding Indigenous communities through traditional knowledge
- Lodging a complaint about cultural appropriation
- In Toronto, Indigenous women dance to the beat of their own drums
- Bearing witness to Toronto's hidden Indigenous history
The events are meant to alternate between Canadian and American host cities. When the U.S. wasn’t able to formulate a plan for the 2017 Games, the Canadian government stepped in and offered to host, even though the most recent event had been in Regina. “It really speaks to their commitment to the Call to Action,” Trudeau says.
Some past participants aren’t so sure, however. “The government is influenced by optics,” says Kim Wheatley, who won gold and bronze in taekwondo at the 2002 Winnipeg Games. “They embraced the Games, but I also think they are influenced by the 150-year anniversary of Canada,” she says. Still, Wheatley believes the event offers “a tangible healing element” that will help participants “become better citizens in this country.”
Brittany Clause was a volunteer at the 2006 Denver Games and was hired to work in Regina in 2014. She says the Games represent a reprieve from the painful legacies of colonization. “I love the concept of NAIG because a sport will never discriminate,” Clause says. “A sport will never discriminate against race, size or colour … people discriminate.”
This year’s 14 NAIG sporting events will take place across the GTA and Six Nations from July 16 to 23. Admission to all events is free.
While the Games offer a chance to encourage reconciliation between Canada’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations, there will still be significant work to do after the event is over. “The mainstream is still in denial about the trauma that happened 100 years ago,” Clause says. “People aren’t well educated on what really happened.”
Daniel LeBaron is a Master of Journalism student at Ryerson University.