Olympian reflects on reconciliation at World Indigenous Nations Games in Alberta

Four-time Olympian Sharon Firth offered insight into the personal challenges of moving forward on reconciliation as the World Indigenous Nations Games kicked off Monday in Maskwacis.

'That's why we do the Indigenous games, so we can ... inspire the youth,' says Games founder

Gwich'in First Nation member and ski legend Sharon Firth was praised by World Indigenous Games founder Marcos Terena for her inspiring struggle.

Four-time Olympian Sharon Firth offered insights into the personal challenges of moving forward on reconciliation as the World Indigenous Nations Games kicked off Monday in Maskwacis, south of Edmonton.

"I want everyone here to reflect on what it took for me mentally and emotionally to go out and represent a nation that worked hard to try to strip me of my identity," Firth, a Gwich'in First Nation member, told the audience Monday at the River Cree Casino on Enoch Cree Nation land.

"I want to be really clear, I'm saying this without resentment. I'm offering a glimpse into what it might take others like me and you to feel like we want to invest in the future," Firth said.

"I hope that wherever you are in your lives that you can take the time to think about how to move forward with your education, your work, your politics and change the experience of our country."

Firth addressed delegates Monday afternoon just hours before the official opening ceremonies.

Up to 2,000 athletes are expected to participate in both traditional and modern sport. They represent at least 29 nations including Ethiopia, Finland and Brazil.

Firth and her twin sister Shirley were the first female Indigenous athletes to represent Canada at the Winter Olympic Games. Together they accumulated 79 medals at national championships, entering Canada's Sports Hall of Fame in 2015, two years after Shirley died of cancer.

Originally from Aklavik, N.W.T., the twins competed in cross-country skiing at four Olympic Games between 1972 and 1984.

I want everyone here to reflect on what it took for me mentally and emotionally to go out and represent a nation that worked hard to try to strip me of my identity.- Sharon Firth, Canadian Indigenous Olympian

"We never missed our practices, we never missed our training," Firth told the crowd Monday, a remarkable statement given the hurdles they had to face.

Firth attended residential school and said her family lived in poverty and struggled with alcoholism.

"There were many times when I would leave home to go and train and there was a party going on," said Firth. "After training, I would return home and the party's still happening."

For Firth, sport was a way out. So she was surprised to discover sporting events were often wrapped up with the partying she thought she had escaped. She and her sister gave each other strength to abstain from drugs and alcohol, she said.

But Firth explained they also benefited from Indigenous traditions. Training for cross-country skiing was a natural extension of the physical activity involved in working on her family's trapline, checking snares or skinning animals, said Firth.

Inspiring journey

Marcos Terena, who founded the Indigenous Games in Brazil in 2015, commended Firth after her speech.

"Your fight was really inspiring because you [fought] for your own people, your culture, your nation, through the thing you know how to do well," Terena said through his daughter Taily Terena, who became emotional as she translated.

Terena is a member of the 30,000-member Terena Nation in south central Brazil.

He said the approximately 300 Indigenous nations across Brazil are fighting for land rights and corresponding environmental protections, as well as for the preservation of culture.

The World Indigenous Nations Games are a way for Indigenous people worldwide to share their challenges and solutions, he said.

Terena also emphasized the importance of Firth's message.

"That's why we do the Indigenous Games," Terena told CBC News Monday. "So we can bring these types of personalities of stories to inspire the youth. To show that with our physical struggle we can balance with our spiritual and fight for our land, our territory, our identity."

andrea.huncar@cbc.ca          @andreahuncar