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Why the legacy of the North American Indigenous Games r

June 22, 2021

Even 19 years later, Serene Porter still remembers the thrill of the moment.

It was late July 2002, and a teenaged Porter was sitting in the stands of Winnipeg's Canad Inns Stadium with the rest of her soccer team, theirs just a few among the sea of eager, young faces that stretched out in all directionhass around her. Arms poked out of the crowd to proudly lift banners high, as clutched flags rolled and flicked in the wind.

On the field below, the opening ceremonies of the fifth North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) played out in front of them, marking the arrival of a week-and-a-half-long stretch that saw Porter and roughly 6,500 fellow Indigenous athletes compete for glory and find comfort in community.

For Porter - a multi-sport athlete since her earliest days in Six Nations of the Grand River, her athletic career spanning from soccer to fast-pitch, volleyball and hockey, too - that day back in 2002 was profound.

"I cannot even explain in words what that feels like," she says, thinking back to being in those stands, taking in that moment, looking out into the crowd and seeing herself reflected back, for once. "It's just a sense of belonging, you know? A sense of that network and community."

The feeling wasn't fleeting. It remained as the Games continued on, those 11 days of multi-sport competition and cultural celebration a rare break from playing on fields where she was something that all others present were not.

"Even if you're from Nova Scotia and you're meeting someone from B.C. in Coast Salish Territory, you still have a connection there," she says. "And we're taking over the city. We're taking over every place. So it's not just on the court or when we're playing our sport, but it's in the city, too. You feel safe. You feel welcome. You feel like you belong - and that's not always the case every day."

But ask anyone who's been there, Porter says, and few NAIG experiences compare to the first one, during those opening ceremonies.

"Everyone's so proud to represent not only their province but especially the Nations and Territories they come from, and that's not something that we get to do every day. Hearing the kids scream for their Territories or their Nations that they come from, and the smiles on their faces, even seeing the families and parents and how proud they are to see that, it's really contagious."

With the legacy of the Games long established by this point, the years between NAIG arrivals - the last was back in 2017 in Toronto - tend to see the anticipation swell and bubble. But for the newest generation of Indigenous athletes to earn the chance to compete, that dream of being in the stands, of watching those opening ceremonies unfold, has twice been taken from them.

The next iteration of NAIG was originally planned for July 2020 in K'jipuktuk (the original Mi'kmaq name for Halifax), in the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi'kmaq people, set to host 5,000 athletes in what would have been the largest multi-sport event ever hosted in Atlantic Canada. But five months before that start date, the COVID-19 pandemic began upending daily life in Nova Scotia.

By late March, it was clear the Games would need to be postponed. They were pushed to 2021, when it was assumed large gatherings would be safe again. In September 2020, however, the Games' postponement was extended indefinitely after it became clear that summer 2021 would bring no more security as a clear-cut window to host NAIG safely.

Porter, who's since returned to NAIG to serve as the executive director of marketing and partnerships for the Games' host society, understood the full weight of that painful but necessary decision.

"The day it came time to tell the athletes that we were postponing, it broke my heart," she remembers. "It was awful. Because I know how much NAIG means to them, being in their shoes."

Sixteen-year-old Mia Maloney, a volleyball phenom from Millbrook First Nation, was excited to showcase her skills on the court for Team Nova Scotia at the 2020 Games. Instead, she's had to navigate a year that made it difficult to even practice her sport at all, let alone compete on a grand stage.

"It sucked," she says aptly. And yet, she's still managed to keep an optimistic view of the situation. "It didn't really feel good, but it also gave me the opportunity to work harder and improve my skills so I can be a better athlete when the Games really come here."

That work hasn't been easy, her mother Justine says, with Mia limited to running or hitting the occasional ball on her own as gym closures prevented her from practising with her team.

It's the same situation 15-year-old Cole McDonald found himself in, his dad Colin says. A badminton talent from Sipekne'katik First Nation, Cole found himself without a place to play due to the pandemic's impact. It was discouraging, he says, after all the hours he'd put in ahead of the Games.

"I trained and worked hard to represent Nova Scotia. I was excited."

What's been lost over the past year in the Games' absence is more than the chance at a powerful cultural experience. NAIG also holds the potential of a path to genuine, tangible athletic progress, whether by pushing the young competitors to a new level or bringing opportunities that carry athletic careers to new heights. Shannon Dunfield - who in October 2020 became the first Métis president of the NAIG Council - saw that aspect of its impact firsthand in her own daughter, Tutchone, who competed in volleyball at the 2014 and 2017 Games.

"She was a good player. She was a really good player. But it wasn't until NAIG that I watched her excel," Dunfield remembers. "I just watched her blossom. In 2017, watching the pride in playing with her team, and playing with all Indigenous athletes, I've just seen how much of a difference NAIG made in how she competed."

A number of volleyball players who represented Alberta at those 2017 Games went on to earn scholarships to play at college and university.

"It wasn't only them playing in the Games, but also the coaches that were there, that watched them play, and recruited them," says Dunfield. "NAIG provides that really amazing opportunity to do that, and I know that scouts are looking more and more at NAIG when it comes around, to be able to recruit Indigenous athletes."

But even for those who compete at NAIG and don't leave with scholarships or connections to new teams, missing the Games means missing out on one of the most unique experiences they can find in the sport: the chance to just play their game, without the weight of all that's heaped on so many young Indigenous athletes. It's the chance to just be an athlete, and not one with a caveat. Ensuring that experience comes is a key focus for those tasked with planning the event.

"One of the things that I noticed playing sports my entire life is some of the difficulties we have at times - we deal with racism or discriminatory actions ... especially when you're the only Indigenous person on the team. NAIG is supposed to be a week where our youth and athletes don't have any of that," Porter says. "We're creating this beautiful space, a safe space for them to excel at whatever sport they come to do. Creating a safe space where they can be proud of who they are and celebrate who they are, and play their hardest without having any of that other level of criticism or racism that we might experience in other places."

While most who'd hoped to participate in 2020 will get that chance eventually - whenever it's deemed safe for the Games to return as intended - for others the opportunity has passed. Dunfield's own son, Takoda, who originally made Team Alberta's volleyball team for the 2020 event, will now miss out on the Games, having grown out of the 13-19 age limit for NAIG participants.

"What's being missed the most is a generation of athletes that will not be able to compete at the Games, and just how heartbreaking that is," says Dunfield. "Because we do have a generation of athletes that will never be able to experience NAIG because of the pandemic."

Amid all the heartbreak that's come over the past year - in and outside of the context of sports - the focus for those at the helm is on bringing the Games back as soon as possible. While no official date has been set yet, an announcement on NAIG's future plans will come in mid-July, says Porter.

And as has been the case since the Games were founded in 1990, planning will be focused not only around the competition but around the NAIG Cultural Village - around providing space to gather and pay tribute to the traditions and history of those hosting the Games.

"Culture needs to be intertwined in every aspect of the Games - it's not just a sporting event," Porter says. "Our goal is to bring it into the venues where they're playing, into the accommodations where they're staying, throughout the city, so where they're going they need to feel that connection. And that's our goal. And that will lead to them feeling comfortable, and proud, and hopefully engaged with the people that live there. And that leads to so many other opportunities.

"NAIG is a starting point. Especially the first time it's coming to the Maritimes, it's a huge event - it's a starting point to start these discussions that can lead on, beyond NAIG."

As an extension of that, the Games serve as a path to educating non-Indigenous communities in the region, too. They create connections that can grow long after the Games' closing ceremonies conclude.

That process is already in motion in the current region.

"We're seeing it happen when we go out and interact with these businesses. They didn't hear about NAIG, ever. Some of them don't know the full history of them being on Mi'gma'gi Territory, so we get to have these discussions with them and start that discussion," says Porter. "It's really starting to create some really cool partnerships, which we want to grow, and just build beyond NAIG. Once NAIG leaves, hopefully we'll leave that legacy to continue that discussion, and hopefully we're connecting the Mi'gma'gi-owned businesses with non-Indigenous companies, to help establish that communication to continue.

"The biggest thing is establishing those partnerships and connecting the two entities, the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, and starting that conversation, you know? Getting Indigenous voices in some of these rooms where they've never been in. That's huge."

The need to strengthen the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities - to centre the voices of the former and see the latter better educated about the history of that relationship - is as vital now as it's ever been. The trauma revisited in recent months by renewed discussion of the atrocities committed at residential schools, and the subsequent national conversation about what meaningful reconciliation and justice looks like, has made that clear.

"This is very fresh for all of us. I am a great grandson of a residential school survivor. I drive by the site every day going to school," says McDonald. "I don't know the role that NAIG can play to recognize everything that has happened this past month - what I feel is that what's crucially important is to make NAIG happen. We are storytellers, and we heal through these stories. We need to connect with each other, because NAIG isn't just about sport. It heals and brings people together in a good way."

And it creates space for Indigenous youth to be part of that national conversation, too, says Maloney.

"I feel like it shows how resilient we are as people," she says, "and it gives the younger generation a chance to lead, with a good example. And to really make change with everything happening."

Her mother echoes that sentiment.

"As Indigenous people, we've survived so much," Justine says. "We've survived disease, we've survived residential schools, we survived a pandemic, heartbreak now. So, it's nice to be able to showcase that we're still here, and show the world that we're still here - we're educating ourselves, we're surviving and we're thriving. And Cole and Mia are a true testament to that."

Hearing Cole and Mia's perspectives on how to move forward, hearing them speak of healing and resilience, of the immense importance of coming together to celebrate and support each other, Dunfield is reminded of something she recently heard from a friend of hers, a daily affirmation that at this moment seems poignant.

"'You are the one our ancestors have been waiting for.' That's one of the daily affirmations," Dunfield says. "And when I think about our youth, and I see Cole and Mia ... that's all I can say. They're the ones our ancestors have been waiting for. And we're so blessed to have such amazing young people be part of this."

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