Lighting the torch, 50 years later


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Fifty years after 10 indigenous teens ran 800 kilometres only to have their glory stripped from them at the finish line, one returned to Winnipeg Wednesday to complete the journey.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/06/2017 (2057 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Fifty years after 10 indigenous teens ran 800 kilometres only to have their glory stripped from them at the finish line, one returned to Winnipeg Wednesday to complete the journey.

On National Aboriginal Day, Dave Courchene lit the Centennial Torch as a symbol of the upcoming 2017 Canada Summer Games.

For Courchene, it also represented just how far Manitoba has come since that day in 1967, when, after the Pan American torch relay from St. Paul, Minn., to the stadium in Winnipeg, he was forced to hand the flame to a non-indigenous man for the glory lap.

Aboriginal teenagers gather on the field at Winnipeg Stadium in this 1967 photo. Thirty-two years after the group relay-ran the Pan Am torch from St. Paul, Minn., to the gates of Winnipeg Stadium only to have a white athlete take the glory lap, seven of the survivors will finally complete the journey July 23. (Winnipeg Free Press)

When Courchene was first told he couldn’t enter the stadium and run the final yards up to the Pan Am cauldron, he said he didn’t fully understand what was going on.

In hindsight, it’s clear to him.

“It really reflected the marginalization that was the environment of our people… We were never really considered to be a people that could make a full contribution,” he said Wednesday.

The moment he lit the Centennial Torch — on National Aboriginal Day — he knew it was different.

“Something happened emotionally that touched my own spirit, that we had finally come to reach that point to be acknowledged,” he said.

Following the torch-lighting, indigenous elders led ceremonies at the Manitoba Legislative Building that haven’t been filmed since 1951 after being deemed illegal under the Indian Act.

Now an elder, Courchene shared traditional knowledge with those in attendance and explained the significance of the fire illuminating the Centennial Torch, constructed for the 1967 Games. “We felt it was very important to encourage people to rediscover the real significance of the meaning of fire because it has a spiritual power,” he said.

Elders say fire is spirit made manifest — it’s untouchable, yet it touches people with warmth and light.

John Woods / The Canadian Press Elder Dave Courchene, carrying a sacred fire torch carried from Manitou Api in Whiteshell Provincial Park by indigenous athletes, lights the Centennial Torch during a lighting ceremony at the Manitoba Legislature in Winnipeg, Wednesday, June 21, 2017. The 1967 Pan American Games' Centennial Torch was re-ignited as part of a day of indigenous cultural ceremonies.

The flame Courchene used to light the Centennial Torch on Memorial Boulevard came from a sacred fire at Manitou Api.

Four young torch-bearers representing the original peoples brought the flame to Winnipeg. They were accompanied by four young water carriers, who sang at Wednesday’s ceremony to honour water and encourage the protection of it.

The sacred fire will stay lit for the entirety of the Canada Summer Games, which run July 28 to Aug. 13.

The framework of Wednesday’s events came from indigenous elders who consult Canada Summer Games officials, said Jeff Hnatiuk, president and CEO 2017 Games. “We wanted to make sure we were really inclusive of our indigenous culture and our indigenous leaders,” he said, adding he hopes to use the Winnipeg Games as a vehicle to share indigenous culture.

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