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Athletes celebrate at Games

Team Eastern Door and the North lacrosse before the games with head coach Al Jones. Courtesy Al Jones

When Team Eastern Door and the North (EDN) paddling head coach Lanho Goodleaf watched his team walk out at the opening ceremony of the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) last Sunday, he had goosebumps.

“We get to expose our youth to the world, to see that the world is bigger than just our rez,” Goodleaf said. “And they’re not alone. For our paddlers, they’re not the only brown people in the water in the world. Growing up, that’s how it was, I felt like we were the only brown kids out there. This opens their eyes, they see that there’s other people in the same boat, literally.”

Team EDN lacrosse head coach Al Jones was also moved by the magnitude of the opening ceremony. Taking place at the Scotiabank Centre, each regional team walked out together, chanting their team name. 

“It was actually beautiful. It was like going into a rock concert, that’s what it felt like. They had music blaring. They were on a big jumbotron. It literally showed the athletes how significant they really are, and how they’re a part of this,” he said. “I was impressed.”

More than 10,000 spectators and 5,000 athletes attended the opening ceremony, with chief Norman Bernard of the Wagmatcook First Nation giving an opening speech. 

“He welcomed our teams, and he said a prayer for all of us to have a good mind during our play and to keep asking the Creator to keep us all safe while we’re here, and also when we go home,” Jones said. “To me, spiritually, that means a lot, because it’s a huge part of any gathering, to want to keep everyone safe, and ask for prayer. So him saying that prayer for all our athletes goes a really long way.”

Team EDN archery head coach Karonhiio Curotte said he was also impressed with the enormity of the opening ceremony.

“Some of the athletes were awestruck with what they were seeing, and being in the middle of it all and suddenly realizing that this is more than they thought it was, this is a big, big production,” he said. “To watch them, you can see that it’s very exciting for them. You can see that they were really enjoying themselves. It was visually spectacular.”

Though everyone was impressed by the effort put into the opening ceremony, some athletes and spectators were surprised at some choices of speakers. Namely, prime minister Justin Trudeau, who was met with thunderous booing from athletes for several seconds at the start of his speech.

“To be honest, I had a sour feeling about it. Him being who he is, and the policies he’s put us through and still continues to uphold against our people.… I think it was super disrespectful and just wrong,” Goodleaf said. “This is a grassroots initiative from Native people; he had nothing to do with it, but the way he spoke about it was like he was almost allowing it to happen, and he was so proud of it. In my opinion he has no business here. He turned our opening ceremony into a photo-op.”

Team EDN basketball head coach Walter Teioniatarathe Whitebean agreed, adding that he was proud of the athletes’ passion. 

“I was definitely surprised by the amount of youth booing Trudeau. It was definitely something different. Nobody knew he was here until he went on stage,” Whitebean said. “The amount of kids booing him was actually something I found amazing. They realized their voices are still not being heard.”

Other coaches had mixed feelings about Trudeau’s appearance. Ross Leclaire, head coach of Team EDN golf, was glad there was a platform for the public to voice their opinions, but said he understood why Trudeau was there.

“I understand the politics behind it, but myself, I’m more of an optimistic person. I always say he’s trying, he’s got a long way to go, but the effort’s there, you know?” Leclaire said.

Another political moment in the opening ceremony came when both the Canadian and American national anthems were played. Most athletes chose to sit down and not sing the anthems. 

“I’m all for being respectful and things like that, but I’m having a hard time, and I’m wondering why we keep singing the Canadian national anthem, especially in an event that’s all-Indigenous in the first place,” Whitebean said. “We’re still fighting our rights even at our own games. And that’s what leads to kids booing, or sitting down at the national anthems, because they see they’re not being heard at their own games.”

Though Goodleaf and others were infuriated to see Trudeau given a platform at the games, coaches were proud to see so many Indigenous youth voicing their opinion by publicly booing him.

“It was nice to know that we weren’t the only ones who were disappointed, and that there’s other people out there from other communities and other provinces that are on the same page as us,” Goodleaf said. “And again, the kids get to see that they’re not alone. There’s almost a cathartic type of feeling, knowing you’re not the only one.”

NAIG concludes this Sunday, July 23. Most sports are currently being live-streamed on NAIG’s YouTube channel, and the closing ceremony will be streamed tonight, Friday, at 8:30 p.m. Halifax time (7:30 p.m. EST).

This article was originally published in print on Friday, July 21, in issue 32.29 of The Eastern Door.

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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.

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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.