Substance abuse, suicide and poor nutrition are widespread among First Nation communities, shaping the lives of aboriginal children daily.
Less common are the teachers and coaches trying to help aboriginal youth rise above these obstacles by engaging them in sports.
But these leaders like to point to Angela Chalmers, the Manitoba-born daughter of a Sioux woman, who earned the 3,000-metre bronze medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.
Though shy by nature, Chalmers was a shining inspiration to others. She knew her achievement was rare, and she used her platform as an Olympian to speak to aboriginal youth across the continent.
Chalmers donated the uniform she wore in Barcelona to Sioux Valley School in Brandon, Man., where it hangs to this day. She admits there were emotional challenges growing up in a family of nine.
"I think my mother's feelings of herself, her self-esteem, her lack of confidence, for lack of a better word — there was some sort of shame associated with being a native American and that impacted every child in the family," Chalmers said.
Though her mother now lives on the Birdtail reserve in western Manitoba, the family moved around a lot when Chalmers was young. Her father was in the military.
"It was difficult but definitely not of the magnitude you might see on the reserve," Chalmers said of her childhood. "But coming from a family of nine with one income, I think that sort of jogged me as a young person to be successful at something."
Chalmers can sympathize with coaches trying to motivate aboriginal children. Lack of self-esteem, she says, is endemic and many parents don’t want their kids to leave the reserve.
Untapped potential: Ottey
Former Canadian Olympian Milt Ottey has been active in native communities through a project called International Fun and Team Athletics, conducting clinics and fitness testing with aboriginal youth.
"There is a lot of untapped potential in the aboriginal communities," said Ottey, the world’s number one ranked high jumper in 1982. "And they eat up what you give them as long as they trust you and know you are coming back. But there is no hope.
"On one of my trips to Kashechewan First Nation, a girl hung herself, one year to the day that her brother had hung himself."
Doug Whistance, who coached Canada’s great middle-distance runner Kevin Sullivan throughout high school, recently spent a year teaching and coaching cross-country running at Chief Sam Cook High School in Split Lake, Man., about 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg. It is a Tataskweyak Cree Nation community.
"I had over 30 kids coming out at the beginning," Whistance said. "By the end of the month, I was down to 15 or 16. We were invited to race at a non-aboriginal school 150 kilometres away, and after only a month's training, four times a week, my kids won everything, individual boys and girls races as well as the team titles."
Whistance ponders return
Though he was asked to extend his contract, Whistance returned home to Cambridge, Ont., a decision he is now reconsidering. The cross-country program he started in 2008 no longer exists. Volunteerism is not widely found on the reserves, he says.
"There was some real talent amongst those students," he said. "None of them had ever done any serious running. None of them had proper running shoes. Many of them ran in jeans. The best girl probably could have finished in the top 10 or 20 in the provincial championships, but the opportunity wasn't there."
Whistance said the school administration refused to pay the $700 provincial sports registration fee because the volleyball and basketball teams had both forfeited games because of absenteeism. This was before Whistance arrived, but he understands the rationale.
"I had to go around in my pickup truck to get them to the meet," Whistance said, shaking his head. "I also had a parent driving around on her ATV who picked up at least four kids who hadn’t got up on time. It’s a different world. It’s very difficult not to be disappointed."
Success for many of the coaches is simply defined by the number of kids who stay in school. The high school dropout rate in some First Nation communities is as high as 70 per cent Absenteeism is rampant.
Sports key to keeping kids in class
At Queen Elizabeth High School in Sioux Lookout, Ont., where the aboriginal population is 60 per cent, vice-principal Steve Poling has used sports to keep kids enrolled in school with great success.
"We went from a retention rate of 35 per cent to 85 per cent because of the involvement of students in sports," Poling said proudly. "And among those who participated in sports the dropout rate was around zero. It’s because they worked with adults who championed them."
Scott Haines, another keen coach who provides expertise to aboriginal communities, has been working on an Ontario "Sports for More" grant with First Nation communities. He, too, has faced challenges and preaches patience.
"One young boy who won the Sioux Lookout Championship we lost to suicide," Haines said. "Success stories? I think of two young men, named Henry Baker and Rupert Bunting, who came out for cross-country. They both qualified for the provincial championships. Then they competed at the Canadian cross-country championships."
Haines was unable to accompany them to the nationals in Jericho Bay, B.C., because of the cost. It’s something he now regrets. Both athletes seemed overwhelmed by a competition with hundreds of competitors. Baker finished the race but Bunting pulled out. Still, getting them to the starting line was an important milestone.
Baker finished high school and works in the Musslewhite mines, while Bunting, 18, is in his final year at Pelican High School in Sioux Lookout. Bunting competed in the North American Indigenous Games in Denver, Colo., which earned him a degree of notoriety back home.
"It is something new to get away from the reserve," Bunting said. "I also went out to Jericho Bay, B.C., for four days. The people on the reserve encourage me. Two days before I am to leave they come by the house and congratulate me. When I came back with two medals from the NAIG games more people came around. Plus my uncle gave me $500."
Asked about the potential among the athletes he coaches, Haines recalls one of the first group runs. The kids asked if they could run into Sioux Lookout for coffee, a distance of 20 kilometres. To his astonishment, the majority finished. An elder pointed out that these were likely descendants of "messenger runners," who routinely ran 40 to 50 kilometres a day several generations ago.
Both Haines and Whistance said alcohol and drug abuse is widespread in the communities. One social worker, who wished to remain anonymous, said children as young as 11 to 13 abuse alcohol.
Whistance recalls congratulating his most promising young male distance runner for beating a strong field in a prestigious snowshoe race.
"I said, ‘How come you did so well?’" Whistance said. "He said, ‘Well, I am fit and strong.’ I said, ‘Yes, but you are competing against some experienced snowshoers.' He said, ‘Yes, but most of those guys were drunk.’"
The sobering reality would discourage many would-be coaches, but it hasn’t deterred Haines, who continues to train young aboriginal runners, even in remote fly-in communities, where the track is a single dirt road, away from the bears that are sometimes spotted on the wooded trails.
Haines believes a champion will emerge one day.
Angela Chalmers now lives just north of Brisbane, Australia, with her husband, Simon Doyle, the Australian 1,500-metres record-holder, and their two children. Canadian coaches, meanwhile, continue to search for her successor among First Nations young people.