Canada Putting On Their Best Brown Face

So, Toronto will host the 2015 Pan-American Games. Hosting these kinds of prestigious sports events stir mixed emotions for me.

Back in the day, I was a staunch opponent to the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic bid. I felt that Canada needed to pull up it’s socks when it comes to First Nations’ poverty and the third world conditions that exist here. At the time, I considered it “Canada’s human rights black eye”.

I wrote each panel judge on the International Olympic Commission and had a good discussion with Dick Pound. I must have had an effect, because the Vancouver Olympic Committee called my boss in an effort to quiet me. It didn’t work. But it didn’t matter. They still won the bid.

To their credit, the Vancouver 2010 organizers have put together what I think is great example of a true First Nations partnership and several communities will benefit from the Olympics for many years to come.

For me, the Pan-Am Games bring on a tremendous sadness that is routed in a certain chapter of the residential school era.

The year is 1967. Winnipeg was awarded the Games, and all of Manitoba was celebrating.

This was a big deal for the small, but emerging prairie city. Winnipeg had Canada’s attention.
Ten young Anishinaabe boys were chosen from a Manitoba residential school to be runners for ceremonial torch for the Pan-Am Games. The boys that were chosen were Charlie Nelson, Dave Courchene Jr., Patrick Bruyere, Charles Bittern, William Chippaway, Fred Harper, William Merasty, Russell Abraham, John Nazzie and Milton Mallett.

Charlie Nelson, the Western Doorway Chief of the Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge is just about the most humble, soft-spoken and kind man I have known from the Lodge. The finest example of a Midewiwin-inin. (Mide Man). Just this summer I had a chance to speak to him about his experiences on the 1967 torch run.

Charlie explained that the boys were not chosen because of their skills. He admitted to not being the best athlete. They were apparently chosen at random by the residential school. Remember this was residential school. It wasn’t a very pleasant place. They did everything they were told without question.

In speaking with Charlie, I get the sense that it must have been really exciting. For these guys to be taken out of school and to travel down into the U.S. To have the opportunity to run across the state of Minnesota and into Manitoba carrying the torch for this prestigious international sporting event. It must have been awesome!

They began their journey in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Neither the boys, nor their chaperones had a plan. They just started running. Taking turns, like the Olympic torch relay we are used to seeing today. Some ran a mile at a time. Others could do two. They stopped to rest, eat and sleep.

In all, they ran over 800 kilometres, arriving at the Pan-Am Stadium in the west end of Winnipeg.

The excitement was intense! For these boys from residential school, nothing like this has ever happened to them. They came from the reserve, some from isolated communities – to be cheered on by thousands of spectators at the Opening Ceremonies of the Pan-American Games.

But it wasn’t meant to be.

When they reached the stadium, the Boys were dealt an unimaginable let-down. They were not allowed to carry the torch into the stadium. That honour went to a non-native athlete.

Each time I hear the story or even when I think about it, I am moved by sadness. No, this wasn’t physical or sexual abuse. Certainly, many other residential school recollections and testimony were much harsher. But this was abuse of their Spirit. It was something that took away their hope.

To think of the efforts of these runners. The thrill of it all. The excitement. And then to be let down by such a blow. It was just not fair. It was racist. It was wrong.

When the Pan-Am Games returned to Winnipeg in 1999, the Government of Manitoba gave an official apology to the runners. At that time they were given the appropriate recognition, as the remaining seven men entered the stadium aloft in traditional canoes to the cheering of the crowd.

I was there when they entered the stadium again, at the 2002 North American Indigenous Games. Charlie and his old friends were given the honour of carrying the NAIG Flag – to the cheers of an overwhelming and appreciative stadium of spectators and athletes. I was so happy to have been a part of that exciting event. I was honoured to know Charlie and so proud of him and his classmates.

Numerous stories have been told about them, including a play and a film called “Niigaanibatowaad- Frontrunners” available through the National Film Board.

I don’t know what to feel about Toronto getting the Pan-Am Games. Just like the Olympics or other prestigious events, they will likely use First Nations’ imagery. They will want dancers, singers and Anishinaabe artwork throughout. As always, Canada will put on their best brown face for the world to see.

But very few will know Canada’s true history in hosting the Pan-Am Games.

“The sound of my footsteps keeps me focused. The sun is just coming up at the end of the road, and it is a nice view but kind of lonely. The other guys are asleep in the bus behind me. They said I run to get away from the school, but I like to think I run to return to my culture, from the darkness to the light, to the Creator.” ~ Bill Chippeway

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