When the North American Indigenous Games were just an idea in the 1970s, the well-being of Indigenous youth was top of mind for the founders.

Willie Littlechild, Charles Wood and John Fletcher were forced to attend residential schools and used sports as a way to escape the hardships they faced.

“It provided them with a platform to show another side of them that other people didn’t often see,” Janice Forsyth told CBC Radio’s Information Morning Nova Scotia on Monday.

“It’s not to say that they weren’t subject to stereotypes, because they certainly were, but it was a positive space where they could excel and show their own potential.”

Forsyth is from Fish River Cree First Nation in Manitoba and has competed in the games. Today, she is a university professor who studies sport’s relationship to Indigenous and Canadian culture, and says the founders wanted to help younger generations.

“They knew that sport, you know, for all of the rhetoric, was racist and wasn’t welcoming, and they wanted their kids to have a positive space,” she said.

“And so that’s where the idea of the Indigenous games came from. They worked for decades to try and make it happen, and so eventually the first ones happened in 1990 in Alberta.”

The North American Indigenous Games have continued to grow and officially kicked off in Halifax Sunday evening, welcoming thousands of young Indigenous athletes from across the continent to compete in traditional and non-traditional sports.

‘Sport did save my life’

George (Tex) Marshall, who is from Eskasoni First Nation and is the president of the North American Indigenous Games, said the event continues to provide a safe and welcoming space for teens to play — more than 50 years after that initial idea was born.

“Sport provides hope, it provides a future for anyone. It builds character and builds leadership skills,” Marshall told Maritime Noon on Monday.

He said when he was young, he went through some “dark times,” but he always gravitated toward sports.

“Through the dark days, sport did save my life, and with that in mind, that’s my whole purpose in life, to give back to sport because it saved mine and I believe it can save the lives of our youth,” he said.

Two girls in yellow uniforms stand close to each other, one with a variety of pins on a lanyard around her neck.
Players from Team Manitoba pose for a photo at a softball match during the first day of the North American Indigenous Games in Halifax. (Robert Short/CBC)

Chief Bob Gloade of Millbrook First Nation shares a similar sentiment. He said his band has been investing in its youth by creating a funding program that covers the costs of sports and activities for young band members.

Gloade said the idea came to him more than 20 years ago when he first started on the band council. At the time, kids in the community would often get into trouble: vandalizing buildings, throwing rocks and breaking windows.

The reason? They were bored, he said.

But instead of punishing them, Gloade and the band council started allocating funds to families so their children could join sports and clubs without worrying about the cost.

“We’re able to fund every community member and sporting activities, regardless of employment status, regardless of where they live, and we do it right across Canada,” Gloade told Mainstreet Halifax.

Mainstreet NS14:04Millbrook chief says supporting kids in sports sets them on a positive path

An estimated 5,000 young athletes from 750 nations will be coming to Nova Scotia for the North American Indigenous Games next week. Some of the events will be hosted in Millbrook First Nation, which has been supporting young athletes for years. Host Jeff Douglas spoke with Chief Bob Gloade to learn more.

Gloade said by investing in these kids, they’re able to channel their energy elsewhere and stay out of trouble, setting them on a positive path.

“There’s a lot of benefits to sports,” he said. “They may all not be turned into professional athletes, but what it does is it helps build character, helps build support and also helps them transition from sports to school to employment to life just in society.”

Gloade said the band continues to empower its kids, which is something that will be on display during the games this week. He said 31 kids from Millbrook will be competing.

“Anything that we can do to promote and support individuals in our community to compete and be the best that they can and also to have fun,” he said, “that’s what it’s all about.”

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