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Vaccine exemptions rejected

Every single vaccine exemption request from Team Kahnawake for this year’s North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) has been rejected, leaving unvaccinated athletes and coaches barred from attending the games in Kjipuktuk, Halifax, this July. 

“It’s basically a disaster,” said Peter Montour, who planned to attend the games with Kahnawake’s wrestling team as a member of mission staff in charge of supporting the events. “This is a disaster for them, because some of the athletes who missed the games because of COVID will now miss it again.”

Roiatate Horn, director of sports and recreation unit at the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK), is the community contact for Team Kahnawake, and was one of the first to receive the news that all vaccine exemption forms had been returned to mission staff, rejected.

“I was very hopeful that the NAIG Commission and Host Society would be understanding of our athletes and our exemption forms. I anticipated probably some of them coming back, but I didn’t anticipate all of them to be denied,” he explained. “It’s unfortunate. I thought they would be more understanding of our community and our athletes’ needs.”

Horn plans to have an emergency team meeting with coaches to discuss a plan of action going forward.

“My job is to support Team Kahnawake as part of Team Eastern Door and the North, so I’m here to support the Kahnawake athletes and coaches, and I’m going to support whatever decision it is they make,” he said. He explained that while Team Kahnawake plays as part of Team Eastern Door and the North, the majority of exemption requests came from Kahnawake players, as far as he is aware. “Now we just need to formulate a game plan for what to do next.”

Karonhiio Curotte coaches the archery team that is meant to attend the games. He said that with so many vaccine exemption rejections, he’s left wondering whether he will have enough players left competing at the games. 

“I’m already down two athletes as it is, and now I’m probably going to lose three more, so I’ll only have three to bring,” he said.

Curotte explained that unvaccinated athletes may have to reconsider their choice not to take the shot if they still wish to compete.

“I understand people not wanting to get the vaccine, that’s your right and you have every right to do it,” he said. “Unfortunately there are consequences to not doing it. And this is one of them. You have to weigh the pros and cons and decide what you want to do from there.”

It’s unclear how many athletes are affected by the decision, as vaccine exemptions were filed by individual athletes and rejections were given to mission staff directly. What is known, however, is that every single application filed was rejected by the NAIG Commission and Host Society.

“Legally, I wasn’t allowed to ask my athletes at tryouts if they’re vaccinated or not,” said Walter Whitebean, who coaches basketball. “I said to my players that I’d like a heads up if they’re not vaccinated so I know what I’m in for, because I told them, I will fight for you.”

Whitebean’s basketball team is all vaccinated, meaning they’re some of the lucky ones not facing trouble getting to the games. But he’s still personally affected by the decision. 

“This would’ve been my son’s first experience at the games, and he isn’t allowed to go because he’s not vaccinated,” Whitebean explained. “I know what these games mean to a lot of these kids. And now they’re shut down, and it doesn’t make sense.”

For Sharon Rice, who is a past athlete and coach who now manages the canoe team, the decision is unfair.

“Our youth just experienced living through a pandemic and are now healthy and on the right path,” she said. “They are training and ready to compete, they are ready to represent themselves and their community – and now we have to jump over yet another hurdle.”

Rice also noted the inconsistencies between the NAIG regulations and regulations for other competitions.

“Presently our athletes can compete in regional, provincial, national, and international sporting events, but they’re denied participation in the NAIG,” she said. “This is just not right.”

As coaches wait until Monday’s emergency meeting to make a decision about the next steps, Allen Diabo, who coaches and manages the U19 lacrosse team, plans to take a hardline stance. 

“My head coach and other two assistants and myself all agreed, we all go or we all don’t,” he said. “Even leaving one behind is too much. My coaching staff and I are standing strong for our athletes.”

NAIG did not reply to a request for comment by deadline.

Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door. She has also covered harm reduction and social justice issues for the Montreal Gazette, The Breach, Filter Magazine, and more.

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Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door. She has also covered harm reduction and social justice issues for the Montreal Gazette, The Breach, Filter Magazine, and more.