Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Time right for indigenous sporting body

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There are young athletes all across North America pursuing their dreams this summer. Shooting endless pucks to work on their wrist shot; getting up before their families to go on an early morning run; refining the entry of their hand and the catch of the water in their freestyle swim stroke.

Sure, maybe they're not all dreaming of the NHL or Olympic gold, but with certainty, they're dreaming of those magical moments of excellence when their years of hard work finally pay off.

As Canadian journalist and best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell has written, mastery of any sport rarely comes without athletes putting in the 10,000 hours of time required to attain the highest levels.

This past week, more than 4,000 of these 10,000-hour kind of athletes converged on Regina and while there, not only did they sacrifice their personal time in pursuit of their athletic goals, but almost more importantly, they also served as role models for their fellow community members.

That's because all 4,000 were aboriginal athletes participating in the North American Indigenous Games -- an international event that is largely unknown beyond the confines of most Canadian reserves.

I'm not usually a fan of segregated events, as I believe integration and working with other cultures is a valuable skill. However, this past week really opened my eyes to the value of occasional events that celebrate a specific culture similar to the Canadian Francophone Games or the Maccabiah Games in Israel.

It is easy for those of us living away from our reserves to become disconnected from our communities and the importance culture plays in who we are. It is also easy for us to forget the beauty of our cultures and get caught up in getting to work and through our daily routines.

That's why I was so amazed to see off-reserve kids from Toronto or Winnipeg, who may never have had a connection to their home reserves mixing and thriving with kids who still live and clearly thrive in their home communities.

I also got to see young people who have only heard or been taught about the negative -- that all reserves are like Attiwapiskat and being aboriginal is somehow something to be ashamed of. Instead, I watched as they were amazed at the beauty, pride and vibrancy of First Nations who proudly call our reserves home.

But is the feel-good nature of the games a valuable outcome for the cost of $12 million? For an event of that price, I'd argue an athletic-development program is much needed.

However, will the games result in more sports in First Nations communities? Are the games meant to be inclusive and participatory, or to showcase elite, high-level athletes?

Waneek Horn Miller, a Kanawake activist and former Olympian, has spent many years immersed in athlete development, her own and in support of aboriginal athletes from across Canada in high performance camps. She thinks a longer-term strategy to build on the games is overdue, especially if the objective is to increase healthy living, sport and athleticism.

"We already know how sick we are," she said to me recently. "Maybe it's time to do the kinds of physical testing and data collection to determine how healthy we are, too."

Her core idea is to create an Indigenous Sport Institute to identify talent by focusing first on four or five key sports. The concept is to build a sport system with centres of excellence at the community level to foster development of coaches, facilities and equipment with year-round events, including throughout the North.

"One of the goals is to organize grand-prix running circuits that culminate in a one-sport yearly championship such as the National Aboriginal Marathon," she said.

And while we're aiming high, she says it's time for a strategic plan to develop an indigenous team that doesn't only participate in Indigenous Games, but also shoots for the top, including the Canada Games, Pan Am Games and, yes, even the Olympics.

Here's to those 4,000 young people who hold so much hope for our future as they truly embody Canada and the United States in their best light. More importantly, here's to the thousands of other First Nations athletes who may just be getting started. Mastery and excellence is just a few more strokes, shots and steps away, so keep dreaming!

 

James Wilson is commissioner of the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, a neutral body mandated to encourage discussion, facilitate public understanding, and enhance mutual respect between all peoples in Manitoba. Twitter: @JamesBWilson_

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 31, 2014 A11

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