Without sports, Saskatchewan chef de mission for Indigenous Games would be 'in jail'

More than anything, having to show up for practice or games kept Saskatchewan chef de mission Mike Tanton accountable and out of trouble. But it was the North American Indigenous Games that gave him motivation and purpose, even when he was struggling with life at home.

Mike Tanton says sports saved his life

Saskatchewan chef de mission Mike Tanton says the North American Indigenous Games kept him motivated and out of trouble. (Courtesy Mike Tanton)

Mike Tanton makes one thing very clear: sports saved his life.

"I wouldn't be here at all. I'd probably be in jail to tell you the truth. It kept me out of a lot of trouble. And it kept my mind focused and surrounded by good people. That was the key thing," he said.

Now as Team Saskatchewan's Chef de Mission for the 2017 North American Indigenous Games, Tanton is hoping to provide the same opportunities he had for the more than 500 athletes he's leading into Toronto this week.

"These Games are going to be a great opportunity to lift up our young people and let them carry the torch forward within their own communities."

Tanton has seen it all — literally. He's attended every single NAIG competition since the first event in Edmonton in 1990.

"I was too young to participate as an athlete so I was taken out there by my father who was the principal at One Arrow Education Complex," Tanton said. "He had a bunch of athletes from his school competing in the Games so he said we're going to check out these Games."

For that week, at just 13 years old, Tanton was wide-eyed with excitement and inspired by what he was seeing. It was the first time he saw people who looked like him competing in huge venues for medals.

"To me it was the craziest thing I had ever seen. This was the Olympics for Aboriginal people," recalled Tanton. "Seeing the competitive nature of our people and how they got along after the competitions are things I took note of at a young age."

Tanton was a basketball player and while he was a spectator for those first Games, he would go on to compete in Saskatchewan colours in the 1993 and 1995 NAIG Games.

The 1993 Games were hosted in Prince Albert, Sask., and Tanton will never forget what it was like walking into the opening ceremony in front of a home crowd.

"That shook me. The noise and everyone cheering and screaming, I felt like I was in a daze. I couldn't believe I was there."

That experience also helped Tanton understand his culture and identity.

"Being there let me know I was doing the right thing and helped me to solidify my identity and not be wishy-washy about who I am or who I'm trying to be.

"Love it. Own it. And run with it," he said.

Not without with adversity

More than anything, having to show up for practice or games kept him accountable and out of trouble.

Despite being afforded ample opportunities to take part in the Games and other sporting events that gave Tanton purpose and motivation, he was struggling with life at home: living conditions were difficult and he didn't get along with his family.

In Grade 6, Tanton left his house and couch-surfed for a short time before being invited to live in his friend's house.

"They had moved from Florida to Saskatoon and they took me in. They had nine dogs, a parrot, a cat and me. It was awesome," Tanton said.

For seven years, Tanton lived with that family. 

"There were two boys, I call them my brothers now. One was a year older and one was a year younger. We still keep in touch. Every June when I see them I have real good heart-to-heart and thank them for saving me."

Giving back to community

After playing basketball at the University of Saskatchewan for the Huskies, Tanton started recognizing the importance of giving back. He said there were so many people along his journey who helped him succeed and get to where he is today and he so badly wanted to be that for other young Indigenous kids.

"What I see and feel is that our young people want to be engaged and involved with something," said Tanton.

The 41-year-old has played an integral role in developing grassroots basketball programs across Saskatchewan and was the director of the White Buffalo Youth Lodge in Saskatoon. Now as Chef de Mission, he travels across the province and has seen first-hand some of the challenges.

"In the north when I travel up there, there's a lack of support and programming," he said. "When you have a small community you'll have one person trying to coordinate everything. A lot of times the pressure gets put on one of two people. It doesn't build capacity for the future."

Tanton has also given back to the community by coaching basketball. (Courtesy Mike Tanton)

Father figure

The only male role models Tanton has had throughout much of his life were his basketball coaches. While he didn't realize it at the time, they were teaching him lessons that would transcend the court and into life.

Sports has taught Tanton to be a better father to his seven-year-old son, pictured, and two daughters. (Courtesy Mike Tanton)

"There were so many things I was learning that I didn't think about during basketball," he said.  "I understand now wherever you are and whatever you achieve you have to work with people and pull people together."

A lesson he's trying to instill in his own children now. Tanton has two daughters — 11 and four — and a seven-year-old son.

"These things I've been a part of in sport have taught me how to become a better dad. I'm always wanting to learn how to be better and be the best I can for my kids," Tanton said.

He's even changed his hairstyle for his son. For the first-time in his life Tanton has two braids, a show of solidarity for his son who also has a braid.

"My little man is in Grade 1 and was getting bugged at school. He has a braid and hasn't cut his hair ever. I told him dad's going to grow out his hair so we both have braids."

Tanton said it's helping and he's feels more connected with his son than ever.

In some respects, Tanton now feels like a father figure for the 500 athletes he's leading into the Games this week in Toronto.

"It really has come full circle from those first Games and I hope this experience has a profound effect on the athletes. It's about them and helping them on their journey."

About the Author

Devin Heroux

CBC reporter

Devin Heroux reports for CBC News and Sports. He is now based in Toronto, after working first for the CBC in Calgary and Saskatoon.