“Inspiration was all around us” Reflections on the North American Indigenous Games

Isaac Callaghan (1)
Isaac Callaghan meeting MNO Toronto York Métis Council SenatorConstance Simmonds at a reception hosted by the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario during the North American Indigenous Games.Click here for larger picture.

By MNO citizen Isaac Callaghan.
Isaac competed and won medals in 13 swimming events at the North American Indigenous Games, making him one of the most medaled athletes. The following article represents the perspective of Isaac Callaghan and does not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of the Métis Nation of Ontario.

The North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) took place July 15-22 in Toronto and was the largest sporting and cultural gathering of Indigenous Peoples in North America. NAIG hosted more than 5,000 participants, 2,000 volunteers and countless spectators for 14 sport categories held in world-class venues located across the Greater Toronto Area, including the Region of Hamilton and the Six Nations of the Grand River.

NAIG was a wonderful cultural and sporting event where all athletes had an opportunity to make friendships with many others from around Turtle Island.  Teams from nine different American states of joined with teams from all ten Canadian provinces and three territories.  Each athlete, coach and chaperone brought their own story and added to the spirit and culture that permeated the games.  Many dignitaries and elders gave stirring speeches and offered prayers for the athletes.  I can only imagine how much time, effort, and money must have gone into the organization of NAIG and all the cultural events.  When I think about this, all I can do is be grateful and say my quiet thank you to people like: Marc Laliberte, Chair of the NAIG Bid Committee and President of ASWCO; Marcia Trudeau, CEO of NAIG; all the organizing teams of people involved; as well as the host nations that welcomed us; and of course the sponsors that footed the bill for the games.  All these efforts were huge!

Inspiration was all around us at NAIG.  Right from the Opening Ceremony where we heard from all the dignitaries that continue to work so hard for us, the  young people from their communities; for some this might seem like just more dull speeches, but if you were there you could tell they were genuine people and sincerely concerned about us.  Performers like Taboo from Black Eyed Peas, Jennifer Kriesberg from Ulali, and A Tribe Called Red, serve as role models to all Indigenous youth.  Though these performers all come from different styles of music the sound of the drum could be heard throughout.  The Ka’wahi Dancers truly moved and amazed us with their interpretation of all the different music genres.  Perhaps most moving was when one of our own, a NAIG soccer player, Mary Nahwegahbow sang the national anthems in English, French, and Ojibwe.

I’ve been a competitive swimmer for almost a decade now and I think it is true of any athlete that a major motivator in any sport is a desire to win your event.  To reach the higher levels in your sport requires three things:  practice, practice, practice.  The five and six practices per week, year upon year, allowed me some insight.  Certainly, success is nice.  Winning medals is nice!  It’s impossible for me to know for certain (records of early Games are incomplete or unavailable), but the 13 medals I’ve won at NAIG (seven gold, three silver, three bronze) puts me at or near the top of the individual medal count.  So, perhaps all this allows me to speak with some authority. 

The real “three things” required to reach the higher levels in your sport are: opportunity, instruction, and dedication.   Without a venue to practice at, one will never get to those high levels or even just to the basic levels for that matter.  So a venue for sport is an important part of opportunity.  There was a line in the movie, Field of Dreams:  “If you build it, they will come.”  Building the venue is a requirement, which in turn requires a willingness to build the venue and the funds to construct and maintain the venue.  Simply the venue’s presence will create interest in the sport it houses. 

The next thing required in sport is good Instruction.  A good coach can make all the difference in the world for a young person just getting into a sport.  A good coach not only teaches skills and rules but also fosters interest within the athlete. 

Thirdly, dedication is required to improve in sport.  Dedication in the athlete is also known as heart.  Commitment, perseverance and enjoyment of the sport are also part of heart.   Dedication is also required of the coach and from the family members who will provide the ride, the time and the funds for their young athlete.

At NAIG 2014 in Regina, I was one of the young athletes and I was lucky enough to have my Dad as a chaperone and to have my home team coach, Sharon Leger, as the coach for Ontario swimming team.   I credit Sharon with helping me stay interested and teaching me the finer skills of swimming.   This year, at NAIG 2017 I must give many thanks to the coaching staff of Laura McPhie and Maria del Carmen Escobar.  At the Pan Am Pool, I was one of the senior swimmers and a NAIG veteran.  I naturally took to cheering on and encouraging the younger swimmers on the team as I had learned from my coaches.  Back at the dorms, the boys on the team hung out and took our meals together.  We bonded like cousins.  Cousins who haven’t seen much of each other, but they share a familial history and now have a bonding event like NAIG to bring them closer together.

This perhaps is the biggest difference between competing at NAIG and competing in other competitions.  At other competitions the “other” is an opponent and someone who stands in the way of your goal.  At NAIG the other athletes are your ‘relations,’ and though you still would like to win the event, these ‘others’ are your cousins; and you’re likely to cheer on your cousins just as they cheer for you.  It’s like playing a game of cards at a family reunion.  Winning the hand is cool, but playing the game with family members is the real prize. 

The theme for this NAIG was “WE ARE ALL #TEAM 88”.  This theme taken from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada:  Calls to Action section 88, which calls for continued support of Indigenous sport.  I had the opportunity to meet Her Honour, the Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, the Honourable David Zimmer, the Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation and NAIG Chief Executive Officer Marcia Trudeau during the games.  I heard from these people and others that support of Indigenous athletes is important.  I hope this support from all levels of Government and also of Corporations will continue.  There are too many stories of Indigenous youth with poor outcomes.  I believe those outcomes could have been different if those young people had sport in their lives.

I was one of the lucky ones who received support from my local [MNO community council in Sudbury] council (Special thanks to Maurice Sarrazin) to attend the North American Indigenous Games.  Now it is up to all of us from #TEAM 88 to speak up in support of sport for Indigenous youth.  We now must tell all of our cousins on Turtle Island of the power of sport and help them to get to the next NAIG family gathering.

Posted: September 11, 2017

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