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JOHN DeMONT: Indigenous games is about more than games and medals

Fancy shawl dancer Tehya Milliea performs at the 2020 North American Indigenous Games volunteer launch inside Halifax City Hall on Friday, February 21, 2020. The games will take place between July 12-19 and 3,000 volunteers are needed.
Fancy shawl dancer Tehya Milliea performs at the 2020 North American Indigenous Games volunteer launch inside Halifax City Hall on Friday, February 21, 2020. The games will take place between July 12-19 and 3,000 volunteers are needed. - Ryan Taplin

When historians chronicle the events of early 2020, they will surely remember it as a bad time for relations between indigenous Canadians and the rest of this country. 

But they weren’t inside Halifax City Hall on Friday. 

There, under chandeliers in a high-ceilinged room with stained-glass windows, the chief of the Millbrook First Nation, a provincial cabinet minister and the deputy-mayor of Halifax gathered, Mi’kmaq educators and activists mixed with members of the Halifax Regional Fire Department, and white lawyers and branding consultants listened as young indigenous drummers brought the thunder.

There wasn’t a harsh word uttered, or a placard waved in anger. The only scowl I saw briefly appeared on the face of a baby, doing what babies do.

Why would there be frowns on such a day?

This, after all, was the big pitch for the 3,000 volunteers needed to put on the 2020 North American Indigenous Games (NAIG), the largest sports competition in the history of Atlantic Canada.

From July 12-18, some 5,300 young athletes from 756 Indigenous Nations throughout Turtle Island — what indigenous people call North America — will descend on Kjipuktuk, which white folks know as Halifax, as well as the Millbrook First Nation, in Truro.

“From California to Newfoundland and Labrador,” Fiona Kirkpatrick Parsons, the NAIG chair said of the geographic range of the competition. “From Florida all the way up to Inuvik.”

It will be a big deal for every one of them, explained Garrett Gloade, the leader of Millbrook’s Iron Tide singers and drummers, who performed at Friday’s event. 

Gloade had never been on an airplane before he boarded one in 2002 to fly to Winnipeg to compete in the NAIG as a teenaged moundsman for the Nova Scotia fast-pitch baseball team.

The squad finished out of the medals due, he told me, to some sort of technicality. That didn’t diminish the experience one bit for Gloade.

“Meeting indigenous people from all over Turtle Island, you’re so eager to learn from those cultures,” he said. “Those friendships continue through to today.”

The experience, from the sounds of it, was much the same for activist and social media star Savvy Simon, who hails from a New Brunswick first nation, but now makes her home in Halifax. 

In 2002, Simon also competed in Winnipeg, as a volleyball player for team New Brunswick. 

“It was the first time in my life I was around so many brown people,” she told the room. “It made me feel so strong to be native.”

The pride was there for anyone to see on Friday.  

In the athletes who, Parsons told me, may not have ever stepped foot outside their tiny first nation before. In Halifax, they will have an experience that could be life-changing for many young people, she said, who are mired in poverty and so often resort to suicide. 

“They will go home changed,” Parsons said. “When they look in the mirror what they will see is all the potential they possess.”

But there was also pride over the scope of an event that spans 21 different venues and includes traditional youth sports — the competition is for 13- to 19-year-olds  — like track and field, basketball, soccer, badminton, swimming, volleyball and wrestling but also more distinctive contests like lacrosse, 3D archery and shooting.

And there was also pride in a gathering that will be about more than games and medals.
Wednesday, we heard about how, during the weeklong event, the Halifax Common will be transformed into a “cultural village.” The medal ceremonies will take place there. 

Inside those tepees, singers, drummers and dancers from the 756 competing nations will perform. In the centre of Kjipuktuk, where the Mi’kmaw have been for 13,000 years, cultures that are as distinct as they are the same, will meet. 

One of those cultures was on display at City Hall. I must tell you that it brightened an icy Friday to be there watching young Mi’kmaq from Millbrook and Elsipogtog, N.B., in traditional garb, dance so beautifully.

But before their performance began, Gloade and seven other Millbrook drummers and singers, all of them former NAIG competitors, took the spotlight. 

Their performance began as it usually does: with the Mi’kmaq Honor Song, which, even if a person doesn’t understand the words, is enough to make the hair on the back of the neck rise.

When I asked Gloade about it afterwards, he said that George Paul, the author of the song, meant it “as an anthem for humanity. That we should always join together, no matter what the circumstances.”

Which, on Friday, seemed about right.

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