Indigenous Games help recovery from a 50-year-old insult
Torchbearers were barred from Pan Am stadium in 1967, but today they say they 'are making great strides'
For many Indigenous communities, the 1967 Pan American Games in Winnipeg were a source of pain.
Fifty years later, the North American Indigenous Games are providing reconciliation after that stinging insult.
On Wednesday at Toronto's York University, a crowd gathered to continue that process with the showing of the National Film Board feature Niigaanibatowaad: FrontRunners.
The film looks back on the rare opportunity that was presented to 10 athletes from residential schools — a chance to be Pan Am Games torchbearers.
Niigaanibatowaad: FrontRunners is a story of survival, reconciliation and hope for future generations. It emphasizes a dream for a new beginning without racism or hatred.
In 1967, 10 standout Indigenous track athletes, the FrontRunners, were chosen to carry the Pan Am torch over a five-day 800-kilometre run. It started in St. Paul, Minn., and ended at the gates of Winnipeg Stadium.
But what awaited the runners there for the opening ceremony was bitter disappointment.
A non-Indigenous athlete was ordered to carry the torch into the stadium in front of the frenzied crowd while the FrontRunners were sent for lunch at a nearby restaurant.
After watching the ceremony on television there, they were promptly shipped back to their schools.
Four of the FrontRunners attended the screening on Wednesday: Patrick Bruyere, William Chippeway, William Merasty and Charlie Nelson.
"Whenever I think about the film, it brings a knot to my stomach," said Bruyere, a member of the Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba. "We hear in movies that time heals. But when you've been [through] a journey [of residential schools] like myself, it's kind of difficult … some days it really hits."
Completing the journey
In 1999 when the Pan American Games returned to Winnipeg, the seven surviving FrontRunners were finally able to enter the stadium carrying the torch.
Nelson said later the group "finally got to complete the journey."
Earlier this year, CBC Short Docs brought together seven of the 10 FrontRunners from 1967. They reunited at the Pancake House in Winnipeg, where they had watched the opening ceremonies after finishing their journey.
They recounted the story of their journey and some of the special moments along the way, and discussed the moment their achievement was taken from them.
Watch a clip from Run as One: The Journey of the Frontrunners, which will premiere on cbc.ca/shortdocs this fall.
Although Nelson agreed Wednesday that the healing process was positive, he said more needs to be done.
"I don't know if people are ready to shake hands," said Nelson, who is from the Roseau River Anishinabe First Nation in Manitoba. "I don't know if we are ready to make a new understanding, because that new understanding isn't quite there yet ... Someday, we may have a new understanding of our peoples."
The emotional evening in Toronto included guests such as filmmaker Laura Robinson, the film's lead actor Ron Desmoulins and Romeo Saganash, the NDP MP for Abitibi--Baie-James--Nunavik--Eeyou, Que.
"One of the most wonderful things that I've seen in the North American Indigenous Games is how proud young people are to be Indigenous," said Desmoulins, whose parents attended residential schools. "That's the most wonderful thing."
The reaction and reconciliation from the 1967 event have demonstrated how powerful sport can be. Chippeway said sport should not be underestimated.
"It's so true. It's better to get involved in sports," he said, smiling. "It's healing for all the Aboriginal people to see their children competing. It gives hope to all of us, all the Indigenous people. It affects all of us positively.
"The biggest challenge is for people to understand and to accept the fact that we are capable," he continued. "We can teach many things."
Bruyere acknowledges there is still work to be done but he is optimistic.
"I think that activities like the Indigenous Games and tonight's film where people want to learn more about us … we are making great strides."