News / Toronto

Photos: North American Indigenous Games athletes ‘Happy, proud, ready for the future’

More than 5,000 athletes marched into the Aviva Centre on Sunday to celebrate their athleticism and heritage, beginning with the national anthem sung in Anishinaabe.

The Opening Ceremony for NAIG 2017 (North American Indigenous Games) was held Sunday night at the Aviva Centre at York University in North York.

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Richard Lautens/Toronto Star

The Opening Ceremony for NAIG 2017 (North American Indigenous Games) was held Sunday night at the Aviva Centre at York University in North York.

Indigenous athletes from across the continent converged on the Aviva Centre in North York on Sunday to kick off the North American Indigenous Games, which are being held in Eastern Canada for the first time in 25 years.

It was hard to spot an empty seat on opening night, where an enthusiastic crowd did the wave, cheered and smashed together batting sticks.

Athletes from each team marched around centre stage, proudly waving their flags.

Taboo from the Black Eyed Peas and A Tribe Called Red were among those who entertained the audience.

The Canadian anthem was sung in English, French, and Anishinaabe. The crowd roared with approval at the rendition in the Indigenous language.

“This is how our people should always be,” said Stacey LaForme, Chief of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation.

“Happy, proud, and ready for the future.”

Team Ontario looks on from the stands during the Opening Ceremony for NAIG 2017 (North American Indigenous Games), held Sunday night at the Aviva Centre at York University in North York.

Richard Lautens/Toronto Star

Team Ontario looks on from the stands during the Opening Ceremony for NAIG 2017 (North American Indigenous Games), held Sunday night at the Aviva Centre at York University in North York.

Since 1990, Indigenous competitors between the ages of 13 and 19 have taken part in the showcase that celebrates their heritage and athleticism.

More than 5,000 athletes from Canada and the United States will take part, including about 450 representing Ontario.

“I know all the athletes, when they arrive, they’re in their shell,” said Wesley Marsden, spokesperson for Team Ontario. “But towards the end of the week, medal or not, they’re pretty pumped about the new friends they’ve made and all the new memories and connections.”

Athletes from Manitoba pose for photos before the opening ceremony of the 2017 North American Indigenous Games, in Toronto on Sunday, July 16, 2017.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch

Athletes from Manitoba pose for photos before the opening ceremony of the 2017 North American Indigenous Games, in Toronto on Sunday, July 16, 2017.

Jocelyn Cheechoo, general manager for the host province, competed multiple times in volleyball and track and field in her youth. She fondly remembers running on the same track American great Carl Lewis ran on, and is excited for the athletes to compete on a track graced by Canadian sprint sensation Andre De Grasse.

Cheechoo added that Indigenous communities welcome some positive media coverage.

“Our youth and some of our coaches . . . are doing some really amazing work in our communities. We’re not the tragedy as often as it is portrayed in the media,” she said. “We do have some really resilient and very strong youth in our communities, and I think that’s what we’re going to see.”

Tania Cameron, a co-ordinator for Team Ontario, believes that “sport is going to bind all of our community together (this week).”

Cameron, who has four children competing in the games this year, added that the showcase will help the country honour the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“I do appreciate and recognize that both Canada and Ontario have been making strides toward reconciliation with our nations, and part of the TRC recommendations is reconciliation in sport . . . these are good steps toward reconciliation.”

Cameron’s daughter, Rachel, who will compete in badminton, said: “It’s actually empowering watching all the youth at the opening ceremonies. It’s like: Wow! There’s a lot of Aboriginal youth playing sports here.”

Athletes will compete in 14 sports in and around the GTA until July 23. Admission for all events is free.

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