Ontario Indigenous Summer Games back on track

Gabriella Landry’s 17-year-old volleyball team, Triple Trouble, just won their first sets at the Ontario Indigenous Summer Games. She is thrilled, but not thrilled with their play at SOGI 2022.

“Our skill and effort was decent considering it was the first time ever that we were able to compete together as a team,” she said.

Landry’s summary—we’re good, but we could be so much better—speaks of countless young Aboriginal athletes in Ontario today. Almost every First Nation in the province can see that their young athletes, especially their team players, have grown rusty during the years of enforced isolation brought on by COVID-19.

Marc Laliberte, president of Indigenous Sport & Wellness Ontario, calls SOGI a reset switch. The four-day gathering of young athletes is a chance for hundreds of children, their families, coaches and communities to once again reap the benefits of sport and competition.

WATCH l Indigenous children take part in the Ontario Indigenous Summer Games:

Ontario Aboriginal Summer Games

#SOGI2022 sees hundreds of Indigenous children aged 13-18 from across the province of Ontario, compete in nine sports. After two years of confinement, this is an opportunity to identify talent for the North American Indigenous Games, which will take place in Halifax in 2023.

Laliberté also equates the sporting and cultural festival with a trial balloon. Everyone involved welcomes the return of high-stakes competition, and at the same time, everyone is missing a bit of practice. That’s why SOGI is partly about the here and now — and partly about preparing for the biggest Indigenous sporting event, the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG), to be held in Halifax in 2023. For kids ages 13-18, this weekend is not only their first competition in years, it’s also a stepping stone to the NAIGs. Nothing like the promise of qualifying in the background to raise the nervousness.

That’s why it’s more than heartwarming to see and hear them, back in the mix, filling uOttawa gymnasiums with volleyball and basketball games. Everyone rejoices to be back amidst the familiar old sounds, creaking sneakers, deaf chants of DEFENCE, referee whistles, shouts and moans of teammates, parents and siblings on the key. Everyone who has come here is loud and proud, excited and grateful, and at the same time acutely aware of the number of young players still sidelined at home.

Generalizations have their limits, but a fundamental truth about Indigenous sports in this province is that the further north you go, the less competitive opportunities there are and the deeper the community has to dig just to give their children a chance. to test their athletic level. capacities.

Persistent effect of confinements

Kerry Andrews is the Sports and Recreation Manager for the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan. Its people are the hosts of SOGI. They are only an hour’s drive from the nation’s capital, but even here, in the land of relative opportunity, she can see the lingering effect of the closures that have hit First Nations so hard.

« We’ve seen our young people become isolated, in a community that’s not so isolated. We’re not involving them. And now that things are reopening, we’re still struggling to get them involved again. It’s changed them a whole lot. bad way and it’s really hard to see, because they’re so young and they should be active and they should be involved and enthusiastic, but they’ve stepped back from these other communities that are actually isolated My heart is with them. »

Which makes the spectacle of Treaty 3 athletes all the more impressive along and over the north shore of Lake Superior. Earlier this year, the territory’s sports manager, Tania Cameron, had a very ambitious plan to bring four volleyball teams and one or two basketball teams to SOGI. The Treaty 3 (volleyball) and SwishNish (basketball) Titans would be represented by 45 kids and five coaches. It would have meant a lot of fundraising. It’s a 26-hour drive from Kenora to Ottawa, and some of the kids had to take even longer flights or commutes just to get to Kenora in the first place. So how hungry is this community for youth sports? Cameron arrived in Ottawa in a convoy of buses and cars: 60 athletes and eight coaches.

Under sunny July skies on the fields and tracks of the U of O, softball and a full range of track and field competitions take shape throughout the weekend. The GeeGees home field is put to good use in a series of high intensity soccer training and skills clinics. The level of play is a revelation. It’s neither easy nor fair to single out one athlete among the many feet in the fleet, but Timmins’ Amber Okimaw has ball skills that quietly capture a spectator’s attention. She would much rather let her game do the talking, but Okimaw is too polite to turn down a few questions. She’s been playing since first grade, she picked it up in the school yard. Speaking of schools, maybe Amber’s football takes her to some famous places. Cal State is on the list. The same goes for Blue Fields State University in West Virginia. Camp invitations are coming.

Fight for a level playing field

It is impossible to seize opportunities like this, without constant exposure to the sport.

Victoria Marchand, former GeeGee star and former National Women’s Aboriginal Soccer Team player, is on the field, volunteering and helping promising young players hone their skills. She says her jaw dropped when she saw and heard this group of players.

« Football is a language » she said « And it’s so beautiful to see these young people speaking it. »

She hopes to coach the NAIG men’s team in Halifax. She is looking for talent under 18 years old.

“In sports, we don’t have the same opportunities as non-indigenous children. We must leave our homes and our communities to practice elite sport. I just want to give back. I want these kids to have a chance to play a sport they love at the national level. »

The athletes are there. The skills are there. Fierce young talent is knocking at the door.

The Ontario Indigenous Summer Games continue throughout the weekend. Training and testing for NAIG continues throughout the coming year. The struggle of First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities in Ontario to give their children a level playing field continues unabated.

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