Tamara Bain, left, and Reese Wainman, centre, compete alongside Brooke Smith for Team NT at the 2023 Canada Games. Sarah Pruys/Team NT
The Northwest Territories has 95 athletes competing at the Canada Winter Games in Prince Edward Island. How many are Indigenous?
The answer isn’t clear. Athlete ethnicity after selection to Team NT is not tracked and Sport North, which oversees the team at the games, said it was unsure if Indigenous residents are underrepresented.
Bill Othmer, Sport North’s executive director, said that was hard to evaluate “since we aren’t aware of the number of participants who are Indigenous.”
Team Yukon surveyed athletes and coaches after being approached by Cabin Radio for details of the team’s representation. An official said by email that the Yukon team features 178 athletes and, responding to the survey, 20 athletes and six coaches self-identified as Indigenous. Team Nunavut said by email that of 38 athletes at the games, 33 identified themselves as Indigenous.
“I think the representation is really limited,” said Wainman.
“It’s kind-of just us, and then a few other people, but we definitely haven’t seen many.”
Bain said a lack of Indigenous athletes at the games robs those back home of role models.
“Watching bigger people curling, we don’t see Indigenous people that are in those big leagues and have made it far in curling,” she told Cabin Radio.
“So then, who are our role models supposed to be? Who do we look up to?”
Systemic lack of access
Groups known as TSOs – territorial sport organizations, like NWT Curling or Cross Country NWT – select the athletes who compete as Team NT at events like the Canada Games. Selection processes vary by sport.
David Mahon, the president of Cross Country NWT, said he believes the issue is systemic.
“By the time the athletes become teenagers, there are a lot of things that have happened there,” said Mahon.
He raised the examples of facilities and coaches, which are more readily accessed in larger communities like Yellowknife than elsewhere.
“You may not have that coach that’s really getting you excited about the sport, or maybe you don’t have the peer support that athletes have in Yellowknife,” he said.
In skiing specifically, Mahon said many young athletes find belonging to a ski club to be a “major draw.” But there are only four of those, in Yellowknife, Hay River, Fort Smith and Inuvik.
He said Cross Country NWT runs programs to try to expand access to skiing beyond the club system, so young people in smaller communities can have at least a taste of the opportunities available in Yellowknife.
One such program involves ski camps in the Sahtu.
“We’ve been running it for a few years now, trying to get kids out on skis and making sure that the equipment is in the community,” he said.
In 2015, five of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action addressed barriers between Indigenous peoples and access to sports.
“We have to work to break down those barriers,” Mahon said, though he added that Cross Country NWT, like Sport North, could not say how many of its 10 athletes at the Canada Winter Games are Indigenous as ethnicity is not tracked.
“We would certainly like to see more Indigenous athletes and I think we need to take steps – and we are taking some steps – to address that,” he said, referring to a program this year that will expand access to ski programming in smaller communities through Sport Canada funding targeted at making sport more inclusive and accessible.
Yellowknife is main source of athletes
The majority of Team NT athletes at this year’s Canada Games are understood to come from Yellowknife. Wainman and Bain said that’s something they’re particularly aware of.
“For this week, the only people at the Canada Winter Games from Inuvik is our team of four, and one other guy,” said Wainman.
The two curlers think this has to do with the funding and opportunities available in a bigger city like Yellowknife, discussing the efforts they went through to make it to the games.
“There’s not a lot of funding. All of our funding we do on our own,” said Bain.
“We do it, but a lot of smaller communities don’t, because they don’t have the time or the opportunities. We even in Inuvik probably get more opportunities than some of the smaller communities, and we still feel the difference between us and Yellowknife.
“Say hockey as an example, there are a lot of hockey players in Inuvik, but only one person made the Team NT team and all the rest are from Yellowknife.”
Wainman stressed the importance of having access to the coaching and support necessary to reach the Canada Games level.
“We get our money, and then we have it to train and go to these games and everything. But we also have a really good coach who supports us in that,” she said, referring to coach Nick Saturnino, who lives in Inuvik.
“A lot of other people might not have that,” Wainman said.
Mahon noted that the composition of Team NT changes depending on the event. At January’s Arctic Winter Games in Fort McMurray – where organizers expressly encourage broad participation among northern communities, as opposed to the Canada Games’ emphasis on elite sport – he said “we definitely saw more participants from around the territory.”
Skiers selected for the Arctic Winter Games included three athletes from Fort Good Hope and one from Fort Smith.
Even there, though, concerns exist.
Deh Cho MLA Ron Bonnetrouge said in the NWT legislature this month that Team NT at the Arctic Winter Games contained no athletes from communities he represents, like Kakisa, Enterprise, or the Kátł’odeeche First Nation.
He asked Shane Thompson – the minister for municipal and community affairs, who is responsible for sports, recreation and, ultimately, Team NT – how small communities are helped to prepare for the games.
Thompson said regional coordinators “are actively involved in sharing information to all the communities”
He assured Bonnetrouge that information about the selection process and deadline was shared with all NWT communities multiple times. Bonnetrouge, however, said simply sharing information wasn’t enough.
“That’s just not going to work,” he said.
The minister, in return, said recreation staff do travel to communities, while places like Fort Simpson and Fort Providence have regularly hosted regional trials ahead of major games.
Thompson and the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs could not be reached for comment for this article.
‘Don’t give up’
Wainman and Bain, who were also on Team NT at the Arctic Winter Games, hope being at the Canada Games can inspire other Indigenous athletes in the NWT to keep trying.
“Don’t give up just because you don’t see Indigenous people representing,” said Bain.
“Don’t think that because you don’t see them it means you can’t make it. Stay motivated and know that you can make it.”
Othmer said by email that Sport North – which is funded by the NWT government to oversee Team NT at major games – “supports the territorial sports organizations, who are the sport governing bodies identifying their athletes via their respective selection policies/processes.”
He wrote that “Indigenous representation quotas” are not a requirement for territorial sport organizations to follow, but said athlete ethnicity would be tracked in future.
The next chance for young people to compete on Team NT will be the North American Indigenous Games in Halifax this summer.
For that event, the team will be managed by Aboriginal Sports Circle NWT. Nobody from that group was available this week to comment.
Editor’s note: Two Cabin Radio members of staff, Ollie Williams and Sarah Pruys, are volunteers with Team NT at the 2023 Canada Games and also act as administrative staff for Cross Country NWT. This article was prepared by other members of the newsroom.