Indigenous Peoples and Sport in Canada

(Disponible en français : Les peuples autochtones et les sports au Canada)

As part of National Indigenous Peoples Day, on June 21 communities across Canada will hold events to celebrate Indigenous cultures and contributions to Canada. Indigenous peoples have been instrumental in the development of sport in Canada and have had significant achievements as athletes, coaches and organizers.

For thousands of years, Indigenous peoples have played their own sports to teach survival and other life skills, for fun and competition. The contributions of Indigenous peoples to Canadian sport are visible today in sports such as kayaking, canoeing, and snowshoeing. Lacrosse was originally played by First Nations people on the east coast of North America. Europeans copied and modified the Indigenous peoples’ version of the sport and it became the form of lacrosse that was recognized as Canada’s national summer sport in 1994.

The Mohawk lacrosse team from Kahnawake won the national championship in 1869.
Photo by James Inglis, courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

Indigenous peoples’ accomplishments and contributions to sport are often overlooked, remaining largely unrecognized by Canadians. This fact was acknowledged by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) in Call to Action 87, which called upon all levels of government, in collaboration with Indigenous peoples and other organizations, “to provide public education that tells the national story of Aboriginal athletes in history.”

Residential Schools and Sports Days

Some residential schools had recreation and sports programs for students. Programs were underfunded and undersupplied, and often did not have proper facilities. However, many former students noted that involvement in sports at residential schools helped them survive harrowing experiences of abuse at these institutions.

In 1885, amendments to the Indian Act prohibited the practice of cultural ceremonies such as the potlatch and sundance. Some Indian Agents attempted to replace these ceremonies with sports days which were held on many First Nations reserves. Sports day celebrations were popular, providing opportunities for members from various communities to visit one another, and encouraging competition within and between communities.

Indigenous Peoples’ Achievements in Sport

Throughout Canada’s history, athletic competitions have barred Indigenous athletes from participating, or relegated them to separate divisions. Numerous Indigenous athletes overcame these exclusionary policies and other forms of discrimination and excelled in sports on the regional, national and international stage.

Tom Longboat was an Onondaga long distance runner who won the Boston Marathon in 1907 and represented Canada in the 1908 Olympics in Paris.

Tom Longboat competed around North America and Europe as part of a career that began in 1906.
Photo: Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame | Panthéon des sports canadiens 
SPORTSHALL.CA | PANTHEONSPORTS.CA

Founded in his honour in 1951, the Tom Longboat Award is a prestigious award recognizing the achievements of Indigenous athletes in Canada. Recently, it has been awarded to athletes Jordin Tootoo, the National Hockey League’s first Inuk hockey player, and James Lavallee, the Métis kayaker who won three medals at the 2017 Canada Games.

Another award winner, Mohawk water polo player Waneek Horn-Miller, co-captained the Canadian national team at the 2000 Olympics. Horn-Miller is one of many Indigenous Olympians, including Shirley and Sharon Firth (Gwich’in cross-country skiers), Carey Price (Nuxalk and Southern Carrier hockey player) and Carolyn Darbyshire-McRorie (Métis curler).

Three Gwich’in cross country skiers  stand atop the podium at the 1971 Canada Winter Games– Shirley Firth (gold), Sharon Firth (silver), and Roseanne Allen (bronze). All later competed for Canada at the Olympics. Photo by Government of Canada, Fitness and Amateur Sports Directorate, courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.
Carey Price is a goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens and represented Canada in the 2014 and 2018 Olympics. Photo by Kristina Servant. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Kevin Koe, a skip of Gwich’in heritage, has won multiple national and world curling championships. Photo by Fabien Perissinotto. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Some First Nations athletes have represented their own nations at both Indigenous and global sporting competitions. For instance, the Iroquois Nation competed as a national team at the most recent men’s and women’s Federation of International Lacrosse World Championships.

Indigenous Sporting Competitions

Indigenous peoples have also developed their own sporting competitions, such as the North American Indigenous Games. While the idea to develop an Indigenous sporting event was developed in the 1970s, the first Games were held in 1990 in Edmonton. Today, the Games take place every three years and bring together Indigenous youth to compete in sports such as canoeing, kayaking, softball, swimming, wrestling, and volleyball. The next Games will be held in Halifax in 2020.

The Arctic Winter Games, first held in 1969, bring together athletes from across the Arctic to compete in a variety of events including Dene and Inuit games. These games, added in 1990, demonstrate athleticism and some of the skills used to live on the sea, ice and land. The one foot high kick is a traditional Inuit game where a target, usually a seal skin ball, is suspended at a specific height, and the athlete must jump through the air attempting to kick or touch the target with one foot, landing on the same foot they kicked with. Dene hand games are played among First Nations in Yukon and the Northwest Territories. Played to the sound of drums, these games involve participants taking turns to guess where an object is hidden in an opponent’s hand.

An athlete competes in the two-foot high kick at the 2008 Arctic Winter Games in Yellowknife. The two-foot high kick is similar to the one-foot high kick, but both feet must be used to jump, touch the target at the same time and then land.
Photo by Flickr user Xander [cropped]. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

While encouraging a healthy lifestyle, sports also strengthen Indigenous identity, contributing to self-confidence and pride. Indigenous peoples have overcome many barriers, such as a lack of infrastructure and resources, and racism, to achieve greatness in sport. Recognizing these barriers, the TRC issued several Calls to Action in this area including the development of national sports programs and initiatives inclusive of Indigenous peoples, the creation of an elite development program for Indigenous athletes, and anti-racism awareness programs. Indigenous athletes continue to inspire youth and achieve success through perseverance and determination.

As stated by Carey Price: I made it here because I wasn’t discouraged. I worked hard to get here, took advantage of every opportunity that I had. And I would really like to encourage First Nations youth to be leaders in their communities. Be proud of your heritage, and don’t be discouraged from the improbable.”

Additional Resources:

Aboriginal Peoples & Sport in Canada, edited by Janice Forsyth and Audrey R. Giles, 2013.

Afros, Aboriginals and Amateur Sport in Pre World War One Canada, by Frank Constantino, 1989.

Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015.

Aboriginal Sports Circle NWT, Arctic Sports & Dene Games.

Authors: Brittany Collier and Matthew Blackshaw, Library of Parliament

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