Struggle and pride for Indigenous athletes

Where would you be without sports? For many students, sports introduce them to community and offer them acceptance during the trying time of adolescence.

For those who can not afford organized sports, local programs in urban areas can help them get involved in athletics. In many isolated Indigenous communities, however, sports remain inaccessible.

Taylor Peters, a fourth-year psychology student and member of the Mount Allison rugby team,  talked about inaccessibility to athletics in her community.

“A lot of kids on reserves don’t have access to sports,” Peters said. Speaking about the poverty that was apparent in her Mi’kmaq community, she said, “We have to go through so many more obstacles to get even the initial start with sports.”

Peters, who grew up in Hansport, N.S., said Indigenous students often face unique barriers to sports.

“You have to be in good shape to play sports, and a lot of these kids haven’t been educated in nutrition. They have to face bigger issues,” she said.“I think that is why my dad raised me off reserve, because he knew there weren’t many opportunities.”

Shaun Robinson is a former football Mountie who now attends Saint Mary’s University.

Robinson was raised in Halifax but grew up with strong ties to his Mi’kmaq community on Lennox Island, P.E.I.

“Certain reserves will help you pay for your sport,” he said. “If I couldn’t buy cleats some years, they would help me out with that.”

Robinson contrasted the support he got from his community to that of other Indigenous experiences. “Sometimes [First Nations communities] don’t have the support or the financial ability.”

First Nations Communities are often isolated from urban centres and athletic infrastructure. (Izzy Francolini/Argosy)
First Nations Communities are often isolated from urban centres and athletic infrastructure. (Izzy Francolini/Argosy)

Spencer Isaac, a Mi’kmaq student from Listuguj First Nation, also shared his experience with athletics.

“My community focused mainly on education and sports for the youth. It’s very youth oriented.” However, even with community support, Isaac said, “If I played sports in my community it wasn’t funded. We had to put a lot of commitment towards it.”

Isaac contrasted his community to a nearby Mi’kmaq reserve that was much smaller and much more isolated.

“They have to go to towns that are about an hour or so away to go play sports or [go to] high school. A lot of funding would be put toward getting them to school,” Isaac said. “I’m just lucky that my community is very headstrong toward sport.”

The lack of funding and access to sport is only part of the difficulty that Indigenous athletes face. Isaac discussed racially fuelled name-calling during high school basketball games in New Brunswick.

“It would happen, but it didn’t bother us because we were just playing basketball.”

When asked about what kinds of harassment were directed at his him and his teammates, he said, “The one we would get was ‘savage.’”

Isaac looked at the adversity he faced with a positive attitude.

“When those racial slurs come out, it’s good for those kids to push through it.” However, he added, “Some kids will drop out of the sport or do another sport.”

Racism in sports is also present at Mt. A.

Peters spoke of one incident that occurred during a rugby practice last year.

“Somebody made a comment when tuition went up: ‘Oh well I’m not Indian, so I don’t get to go to school here for free.’ Usually I would say something, but it was my friend who said it,” she said.

Robinson talked about receiving racial insults during last year’s homecoming game.

“When we played Sherbrooke last year someone called me the N-word. It’s happened a few times,” he said. “That just happens when you are coloured.”

When asked about the importance of sports for First Nations communities, Isaac said, “I think it’s one of the most important things, if not the most important. Without it, I probably would not have gone to university or wanted to focus in school so much.”

Many Indigenous communities have to work significantly harder for what many other Canadian youths take for granted. They often face bigotry and racism that no person, let alone teenager, should have to deal with.

As part of the Year of Indigenous Knowing at Mt. A, we should start thinking about why there aren’t more Indigenous athletes on our varsity and club teams, why there aren’t more Indigenous students in our classrooms, and why these classes are not doing more to discuss issues of systemic poverty in First Nations communities.

David Taplin