North American Indigenous Games

Team 88 became the rallying cry of the North American Indigenous Games

Upwards of 13,000 Team 88 flags waved in unison Sunday night at the Aviva Centre in Toronto during the opening ceremony for the North American Indigenous Games, in a moment of pause and reflection of where young Indigenous athletes have come from.

13,000 Team 88 flags waved Sunday as athletes entered opening ceremony

The North American Indigenous Games get started with the opening ceremony on Sunday night in Toronto. (Devin Heroux/CBC Sports)

They had one year, a limited budget and a staff of just 14 to pull off the North American Indigenous Games. For so many reasons, the NAIG committee could have made this about just getting to today, putting the show on and being done with it all.

But despite all the obstacles and challenges the NAIG committee has had to overcome, it wanted to make it about more than sport. The staff has been relentless in the efforts of ensuring a legacy of reconciliation.

The committee did that early on by making the theme Team 88, which references the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's 88th call to action directing Canada to support Indigenous sports.

On Sunday night, at the Aviva Centre in Toronto during the opening ceremony, upwards of 13,000 Team 88 flags waved in unison.

The 2017 Indigenous Games are officially open 1:12

The flags were purchased by the committee.

"All the blood, sweat and tears our team has shown over the last little while, it's this moment we've been doing it for," said Games general manager Michael Cvitkovic.

"It's become personal for our entire staff. We won't be able to fix things overnight, but in a small way we hope it's the start of something big. There's nothing like sport and youth that can help stir that dialogue."

Not only did every athlete carry a Team 88 flag, every spectator inside the Aviva Centre and at the viewing party at CBC did as well.

Cvitkovic says he wants it to be a moment of pause and reflection of where all these inspiring, young Indigenous athletes have come from, and then a chance to move forward.

"It's a plea to say, 'Listen, the momentum has been created and now. Team 88 has been brought to a national spotlight. How do we carry the torch forward?'" Cvitkovic said.

Team 88 references the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's 88th call to action directing Canada to support Indigenous sports. (Devin Heroux/CBC Sports)

The ceremony was postponed to 9:00 p.m. ET due to inclement weather. Planned prep-rallies and the parade of athletes were cancelled.

There will also be Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action pocketbooks for every person sitting in the suites in the 200 level, which will mainly include government leaders, stakeholders and policymakers — a not-so subtle reminder of what's at stake, said Cvitkovic.

"That in itself with those Team 88 flags waving will open so many eyes and make them realize this is more than just going down and watching a Leafs game or something like that," he said.

NAIG Legacy Launch

Before the flags wave at the opening ceremony, there will be a closed meeting at the Aviva Centre for government leaders, stakeholders and Indigenous leaders.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde and Carolyn Bennett, minster of Indigenous and northern affairs, will be there along with many other politicians. It's Cvitkovic's hope that the meeting remains informal and is a chance for the decision-makers in the room to start a dialogue about Team 88, and how these Games can reignite a national dialogue.

"There's been a lot of history within Indigenous communities," said Cvitkovic. "This is an opportunity to pause and reflect on that but to also look forward. That's been our mandate. To stop and move forward."

At the heart of what Cvitkovic believes can be a catalyst in moving the dialogue forward is unity. He shares a story of when he worked for Tennis Canada a number of years ago with a colleague he holds in high esteem.

"Hatem McDadi was the vice-president of tennis development at the time and I'll never forget what he said," recalled Cvitkovic. "He said it's not Tennis Canada. It's Tennis in Canada."

Cvitkovic said this was a fundamental change in the way the national sport governing body worked and approached relationships. They quickly started to bring provincial and federal stakeholders together for discussions.

"We started to embrace unity and embrace bringing people to the table which is really a best practice. It's not a top down approach," he said. "That's the approach we're taking with these Games. The dialogue needs to continue and the need for a truly national dialogue of working together."

McDadi will be in that closed meeting, sharing this experience and how it changed the way Tennis Canada operated.

Reconciliation through sport

Cvitkovic isn't naive when it comes to how long the process of reconciliation takes, nor does he have illusions of grandeur in thinking it can all be fixed by waving flags and having politicians in a room.

But what he does strongly believe is that this can be a starting point and perhaps a stark reminder of how sport can be a launching pad for reconciliation.

"It helps to answer calls to action 87 to 91, which address sport and health for Indigenous youth," he said. "We're bringing everybody together to make sure there's clarity and purpose. The torch needs to be passed on to those who will answer the call."

For the next week, more than 5,000 athletes from across Turtle Island will compete in 14 sporting categories with hopes of taking home a medal. (Devin Heroux/CBC Sports)

For the next week, more than 5,000 athletes from across Turtle Island will compete in 14 sporting categories on the traditional lands and homelands of the Huron-Wendat Nation, Metis Nation of Ontario, Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation and Six Nations.

Add to that the small team of 14 people who have worked tirelessly to be ready for tonight, now joined by upwards of 2,000 volunteers, as well as community and government leaders. They'll be in the same place at once, waving Team 88 flags together.

Cvitkovic said, "13,000 people on one Sunday night in July in Toronto will all wave this flag as a symbol for everyone to understand the power of sport and the healing that sport can play in reconciliation."

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.