More than 50 students from 11 First Nations gathered at the C.J. Sanders Fieldhouse and Hangar at Lakehead University over the weekend for Nishnawbe Aski Nation's first Skills Development Track and Field Meet. 

Members of the university's track team volunteered their time to coach the students in running, long jump, shot put and other events on Saturday, then set up competitions on Sunday.

Jenelle Manitowabi and Drew Vincent

Jenelle Manitowabi and Drew Vincent from Lac Seul First Nation said they would like to come back to the track and field event again next year. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

"They were showing us proper techniques and stuff," said Jenelle Manitowabi, 13, from Lac Seul First Nation, adding that she especially liked shot put and long jump.   

"I've been doing javelin — anything throwable," said her friend, Drew Vincent, 14. 

Nishnawbe Aski Nation organizers said the goal of the event was to promote health, increase confidence and build self-esteem. 

"One thing that really brings [us] to our knees and wounded us to the very core is the loss of our children," said NAN Deputy Grand Chief Goyce Kakegamic, noting the high rate of suicide among First Nations youth. "I think through sports, we bring our young people together to promote healthy living.  And I think if we have a healthy individual, that ... constitutes a healthy community."

Long jump NAN track and field

First Nations students lined up to compete in long jump on Sunday at the NAN track and field meet. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

Kakegamic said no funding was available for this inaugural event, so individual First Nations had to pay the cost to send students this year. He said participants were already talking about fundraising for next year, and he hoped the track and field meet would expand next year.  

The school principal for Lac Seul First Nation, Jennifer Manitowabi, said the event was important not only to encourage participation in sports, but also to lessen the fear students often feel about going to a city to pursue their education.

Jennifer Manitowabi

The school principal for Lac Seul First Nation, Jennifer Manitowabi, says the value of the track and field meet extends beyond sports. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

Lakehead University graduate herself, Manitowabi brought her students to Thunder Bay a day early so they could tour the campus on Friday. 

"At the end of it all, just yesterday, one of them said to me, 'Now I know I want to go to university,'" she said. "So to me, that was worth it all."