Teachers of history in Canada are compelled less to fill empty brains with historical fact and more to design experiences that enable learners to think historically. Thinking historically, or the act of doing history, can allow learners in some cases to analyze how the colonial experience has remained the same or changed, and to what extent, in Canada.

In an outstanding model of such critical thinking, Janice Forsyth, associate professor of sociology and director of Indigenous studies at Western University, takes a deep dive into the deliberate and genocidal policies of Canada and how Indigenous people have pushed back in powerful acts of reclamation — all through sport.

Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame</p><p>The Indigenous athletics award named after runner Tom Longboat (front) was created after the Second World War to promote activities mandated by residential schools.</p>

Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame

The Indigenous athletics award named after runner Tom Longboat (front) was created after the Second World War to promote activities mandated by residential schools.

In Reclaiming Tom Longboat: Indigenous Self-Determination in Canadian Sport, Forsyth examines the evolution of the Tom Longboat awards less as a means of biographical analysis, but more as a "complex and far more interesting story about sport, commemoration, assimilation, and Indigenous self-determination in Canada."

Forsyth argues that "the history of the awards is a history of assimilation and self-determination told through the lens of sport" — fantastic fodder for any Grade 11 Canadian history class in Manitoba.

Owing its name to the legacy of famed Indigenous athlete and runner Tom Longboat, the awards were created following the Second World War as a weapon of colonization. Forsyth posits that colonization, "whether through legislation or brute force, has always been violent and, in spite of Indigenous resistance, persists in Canada."

Vaughan Merchant / The Canadian Press files</p><p>Jordin Tootoo (right), seen here in 2002, won the Tom Longboat Award that year, and was the first Inuk player to skate in the NHL.</p>

Vaughan Merchant / The Canadian Press files

Jordin Tootoo (right), seen here in 2002, won the Tom Longboat Award that year, and was the first Inuk player to skate in the NHL.

By the mid-20th century, the federal government had envisioned sport as a means to assimilate Indigenous youth into Canadian society, replacing outlawed ceremony with European activities mandated through residential schools.

As the state of residential schools became more publicly known, the Canadian government saw physical activity as a means to curb the atrocious death rates of Indigenous children. Boys were forced to play hockey and other western sports, and children were heavily revered for conforming to European values and for shedding their culture and teachings.

According to Forsyth, "repression alone is not enough to bring about fundamental change in population; it must be coupled with enabling techniques that lure members of that population into managing their self-transformation."

Sport became a tool for maintaining an apartheid system in Canada, and in its infancy, the Longboat Award was an exemplar of this imbalance of power.

But through her examination of the continuity and change of the awards, Forsyth reveals how as Indian Affairs lost interest in sport and the awards, Indigenous political bodies such as the National Indian Brotherhood (NIB) and then the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) attempted to use the awards as a means of reclamation. This mirrored the rise of resistance in Canada in the 1970s and ’80s, culminating in the Oka crisis 30 years ago.

But the NIB and AFN struggled to place the Longboat Awards on the same level as other mainstream awards — even the CBC refused to air the presentation of the awards, "thus reinforcing the marginal status of Indigenous athletes within the mainstream sport system," writes Forsyth.

The NIB and AFN, largely dependent on the systems created by the Indian Act, were unable to elevate and reclaim sport and the awards as a means of reclamation and resistance.

What is perhaps most compelling about Forsyth’s work are her interviews with several Longboat award-winners. Through these, the reader learns about the complexity of what it means to be Indigenous in Canada from the contexts of class, gender, urban, rez, and political and economic status. And as Forysth concludes, "The Tom Longboat Awards thus offer an array of unique points for examining what it means to be Indigenous in Canada."

And as the Calls to Action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report emphasize sport as a means of reconciliation and possible reclamation, the time might be ripe for all Canadians to reflect on how sport can help us all think historically about the settler-colonial state, reconciliation and justice. About how western assumptions of success and progress have been used as a means to marginalize Indigenous peoples and how we might take the necessary and difficult steps to listen, honour and become accomplices in self-determination.

Matt Henderson is assistant superintendent of Seven Oaks School Division.