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An Olympic challenge

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Modern pentathlete Monica Pinette, who is Métis, was the lone aboriginal person on the Canadian team of 331 athletes in Beijing.

The 2006 Census tells us that about 1.2 million Canadians identify as aboriginal in a population of 33 million, which means there should have been 11 aboriginal athletes on the team.

But there weren't, and there won't be proportional representation until Canadians in general and sports organizations in particular understand the benefits that could flow from creating opportunities for aboriginal children to join the team, so to speak.

During the weeks I covered the Beijing Games, and the days since I returned to Canada, I have asked one question of the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympics:

"How will VANOC and the Canadian Olympic Committee ensure that aboriginal youth have real access to the facilities and programs that become the sport legacy of the Vancouver Games, and how are they working with national sport organizations, like Cross Country Canada or Alpine Canada, to ensure aboriginal youth are included in their future Olympic plans?"

It should be an easy question to answer given the way in which VANOC went native in their displays in Beijing with Inukshuks, glossy photos of totem poles, and a USB plug in the shape of a kayak but filled with all manner of VANOC info, except what I asked for.

The committee eventually sent me reams more, but it never did answer the questions.

Snowboarding is the only one of 21 winter sports that has a successful aboriginal element.

It's called Chill, a snowboarding program that brings inner-city youth, many of whom are from First Nations, to Cypress Mountain to snowboard, and the First Nations Snowboarding Team, started by Aaron Marchant, of the Squamish First Nation.

The team is backed by "Crazy Canuck" Steve Podborski, who urged Marchant to make his dream of seeing First Nations kids careening down hills a reality.

The FNST has already put three athletes on the B.C. snowboarding team and has broadened its program to other communities.

But that's it.

Not only is there nothing in place to ensure that these kids continue to access facilities and programs once the five-ring days are long over, there are no plans for any other programs of this magnitude in any other sport.

There should be.

Imagine a Canada (as former long-distance runner and Cree professor Janice Forsyth did at the North American Indigenous Games this year) in which there are so many aboriginal athletes vying for spots on Olympic teams that their presence is a given, not a guess.

It's possible.

The FNST has received $550,000 over the past four years from the Aboriginal Youth Sport Legacies Fund, a $3-million one-time fund established to ensure British Columbians benefit from Olympic "legacies."

Marchant says he also receives support from ski-hill operators, equipment and clothing suppliers, coaches, First Nations, the YWCA and others for whom First Nations youth matter.

"For a lot of our communities it (elite sport) is the furthest thing from their mind," he says. "The kids have chipped boards, no gloves, but we have several hundred kids accessing the hill."

And the word is getting out.

"I received an e-mail from a seven-year-old girl in Alberta. All she wanted to do was join our program, but it's B.C. only. Alberta, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba -- they need national support. They want this program. It's unfortunate that youth have to move all the way here for a program like this."

Aboriginal leaders in sport have been calling for such programs for years, but they don't believe hosting the Olympics should be a funding criterion, and $3 million won't go far.

Had VANOC brass stopped in the Cowichan Valley for the North American Indigenous Games this summer, they would have seen 5,000 aboriginal youth from above the Arctic Circle to the Mexican border. They would have seen what Marchant has seen and might have clued in that they must play a large part in that future.

One of the honoured elders at the games was Cree chief Willie Littlechild. He helped found the games in 1990 in Edmonton, was the first aboriginal person in Canada to obtain a phys ed degree, and did his masters degree on long-distance runner Tom Longboat the same year he entered law school. Littlechild became an MP in the Mulroney government, and now represents Alberta at the Assembly of First Nations.

He is also one of the authors of the Maskwachees Declaration, which states that "aboriginal youth are the fastest growing segment of the Canadian population, that there is a lack of priority in allocation of adequate financial and human resources for recreation and sport, that sport's infrastructure is complex, and that there is a need to enhance communication and accountability between aboriginal and non-aboriginal sport and recreation organizations and governments."

The cost of bringing the VANOC sales pitch to Beijing -- one of thousands of junkets -- could have paid for plenty of aboriginal sport programs. Canada's sport decision-makers are happy to take the kayaks, Inukshuks and totem poles, but real respect for people and culture, and a deep understanding of the work we all have to do together so aboriginal youth have the same opportunities as others to fulfil their sporting dreams, are still sadly lacking.

Laura Robinson, a former member of the national cycling team, is a writer who has covered four Olympic Games and four North American Indigenous Games.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 4, 2008 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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