Actions and Commitments

Call to Action # 88: Sports and Reconciliation (87-91)

Competitors welcome return of North American Indigenous Games

July 13, 2023

Mi’kma’ki set to greet young athletes from 750-plus nations

A team manitoba athlete runs and smiles with a flag over his head during NAIG opening ceremonies in 2017 in Toronto.
An athlete from Team Manitoba celebrates during the opening of the 2017 North American Indigenous Games in Toronto. (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

CBC News: Pjila’si. Welcome. Thousands of athletes are about to experience Pjila’si for the first time as the 10th edition of the North American Indigenous Games get underway in Atlantic Canada.

The event is the first since 2017 because of cancellations due to COVID. It runs July 16-23 in and near Kjipuktuk (Halifax), Dartmouth, Millbrook First Nation and Sipekne’katik, Nova Scotia traditional Mi’kma’ki territory. It will be the largest indigenous gathering in Atlantic Canada’s history and CBC will have coverage throughout, including 1,500 hours of streamed events.

“More than welcome, Pjila’si means: we are saving you a seat at the table,” said Brendon Smithson, NAIG’s CEO. “These games have been postponed for three years and that seat is still waiting for you.”

NAIG is sometimes described as  “The Indigenous Olympics,” with 750 nations coming together, more than three times the 200 that will compete at next summer’s Paris Olympics. NAIG is all about friendly rivalries, meeting new competitors, learning new strategies and new languages.

Like the Olympics, NAIG is multi-disciplinary, with competition in 16 sports, including the three traditional events- canoe/kayak, archery and lacrosse. And like the Olympics, the host communities are always proud to share their culture. NAIG athletes and their families and chaperones are immersed in a scene rich with Indigenous food, art, music, dance, fashion. Traditional practices are shared and mashed up with modern materials and ideas. 

Long-awaited return of North American Indigenous Games has athletes excited
WATCH | An athlete returns, 6 years after her NAIG debut: Duration 1:48

Kacey Young will join over 5,000 athletes on Mi’kmaq territory in Halifax next month for the first NAIG since 2017.

Click on the following link to view the video:

NAIG is its own beautiful thing. It is also one of the success stories from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action. NAIG is living proof that sport is a pathway to reconciliation.

Smithson has watched it happen. “My players from teams I coached still have friends made years and years earlier at NAIG,” he said. “And when you travel later in life, the friends you can see in those far away places? It’s great. Huge connections and bonds formed.”

NAIG is also a logistical challenge. Just getting a chance to compete is no sure thing. In southern and eastern Ontario, qualifiers were often held in prohibitively distant towns and many athletes weren’t able to make the16-hour round-trip to the nearest tryouts.

Basketball coach Gerry Benoit understands the dissatisfaction, but he says it was caused by a deliberate plan to give more northerly communities a better shot at competing. In a limited resources endeavour, that’s a hard call.

Benoit, who is coaching a U14 boys NAIG team, shares a quick memory about his own experience at that age. When he and his brother were kids in eastern Ontario, they were the only indigenous students in their high school. While other players relaxed in the “off season”, Benoit renamed it “the improvement season” and worked hard at his basketball game.

He said came back one September to some racist taunts and stupidity. Benoit went one-on-one against his main bully, who learned the hard way that Benoit had developed a left-handed dunk over the summer.

Inspirational stories like that are everywhere at NAIG. Today’s competitors will carry the memories and lessons to the younger ones coming up.

Lacrosse keeps getting bigger

Tania Cameron, from Kenora, Treaty 3 territory, is building and sharing sports knowledge at scale. The basketball manager of six teams is heading to NAIG along with sons Daniel, an apprentice basketball coach for the U19 males, and Josh, a team chaperone. Both competed at NAIG in the past, as did their sister.

Proud as she is of her own family, Cameron can also boast that at least 21 athletes from her teams have also qualified for other sports at NAIG. 

Lacrosse is always an important part of NAIG. Kevin Sandy was former CEO of the Halifax 2020 NAIG host society, and he’s a current director of Haudenosaunee Lacrosse. Even though he won’t be coaching this time around, Sandy is rubbing his hands in anticipation of the tournament that’s about to unfold. 

Sandy said teams to watch include The Six Nations, British Columbia, New York’s Haudenosaunee, and the Eastern Doors.

The main thing is that after six years of practice, Sandy said, the teams are beyond ready and the anticipation levels are off the hook.


David Giddens, Producer

David Giddens produces and writes and edits for CBC Sports. POV writing and podcast are his main areas of attention.