Rilee ManyBears chuckles when he hears individuals say athletes coaching to succeed in the Olympics should work twice as onerous as their rivals.
“In First Nations life, you’ve got to work three times as hard,” stated ManyBears, a distance runner from the Siksika Nation, a Blackfoot settlement close to Calgary, who had hoped to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics earlier than the COVID-19 pandemic. “You’re going to deal with many barriers, you’re going to deal with racism.
“I grew up in a family full of medicine and alcohol. My mother and father have been in that dependancy way of life. I had older cousins I regarded as much as at a younger age, however they received into detrimental life.”
Alison Desmarais, a former short-track speed skater who competed in World Cup events, is a member of the Metis Nation British Columbia. Growing up in Vanderhoof, B.C., she remembers kids from the nearby First Nations would participate on the local sports teams.
“As we received older there can be much less and fewer of the Indigenous classmates, buddies, on our groups,” said Desmarais, who now lives in Calgary and hopes to transition to long-track speed skating. “I’m certain there was simply a lot occurring [with] their house life or their reserves … Things I simply did not have to fret about that Indigenous athletes or individuals do.”
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Indigenous athletes and academics say poverty, isolation, health issues, inter-generational trauma from residential schools, cultural barriers and a lack of opportunity are preventing many Indigenous athletes from competing at the Olympics.
“By and large, we just don’t make it to the international and Olympic levels at the same rate as privileged white people,” Desmarais said.
David Shoemaker, the COC’s chief executive officer, said this year staff has been asked to voluntarily self-identify to help inform policies and processes with the goal of removing barriers to diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
“The next step is to ask Team Canada athletes to do the same so that we can begin to remove barriers they may be facing,” he said in a statement.
Rejection of assumed Canadian identity
Christine O’Bonsawin, an associate professor of history and Indigenous studies at the University of Victoria, said some Indigenous athletes are making the choice not to represent Canada. They prefer competing at the North American or World Indigenous Games or other all-Indigenous sports events.
“The Canadian sport model supports the assimilation of Indigenous people,” said O’Bonsawin, a member of the Abenaki Nation, who played university hockey and basketball and still plays soccer at a high level.
“We are recognizing through the reconciliation process . . . more Indigenous people are identifying their citizenship as belonging to their Indigenous nation and not Canada . . . a rejection of an assumed Canadian identity.”
By and large, we just don’t make it to the international and Olympic levels at the same rate as privileged white people.– Alison Desmarais, short-track speed skater
The discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children on the grounds of a former Kamloops Indian residential school could further impact Indigenous athletes deciding if they want to wear a Maple Leaf.
“Canada, quite frankly, has been horrible to Indigenous people,” Desmarais said. “I see why you wouldn’t want to represent a nation that you feel has wronged your people and you.”
Alwyn Morris, a member of the Mohawk nation in Kahnawake, is the only Indigenous Canadian to win a summer Olympic gold medal with his victory in sprint kayak at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
Attracting Indigenous athletes
He believes the system has improved for Indigenous athletes since he competed and there’s now an understanding Indigenous people are not just one culture.
“The support system as a whole has evolved to understand sort of what they need to do in order to attract Indigenous athletes,” he said. “I don’t think the pool has been tapped at all.”
Shoemaker said the COC is hoping to identify more Indigenous talent.
“We offer OLY Legacy Grants, half of which are devoted to BIPOC initiatives, and we’ve shifted our Emerging Leaders program to focus on BIPOC leaders in Canadian sport,” he said.
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ManyBears won medals at the 2014 North American Indigenous Games in Regina and the 2015 World Indigenous Games in Brazil. In 2016 he became the first Siksika Nation member to complete the Boston Marathon.
Athletes competing at an Indigenous Games have a comradery and understand each other, ManyBears said.
“They really feel at house with their individuals,” said ManyBears, whose training for Tokyo was stalled when he decided to work for the Siksika Health Services to help his community during the pandemic. “They really feel spiritedly linked and have fun and compete for enjoyable making recollections.”
Entering the mainstream sports system can be difficult for Indigenous youth.
ManyBears, who still hopes to qualify for the 2024 Olympics, dealt with substance abuse and depression following the death of his father. He attempted suicide in 2015.
“I wanted a dream to heal a damaged soul,” he said. “I wrote in a e-book I wished to compete on the Olympics sometime. That suicide notice was a purpose notice.”
The list of Indigenous athletes who have represented Canada at the summer Olympics includes people like boxer Mary Spencer, Waneek Horn-Miller in water polo and runner Tom Longboat.
ManyBears said kids on the reserve ask him if he’s going to the Olympics.
“Getting that type of message type of helps me,” he said. “There’s somebody trying as much as me.”