Executive Director of the Yukon Aboriginal Sports Circle (YASC) Gael Marchand says that national and territorial funding has increased for their programming. He attributes the Calls to Action, which highlight the need for inclusive sport policies, programs, initiatives; Indigenous athlete development; continued support for the North American Indigenous Games; and public education that tells the story of Indigenous athletes in history.
Megan Cromarty works closely with YASC in her role as the First Nations Recreation and Sports Consultant with the Yukon government. She says she regularly refers to the Calls to Action in her work. Yukon and YASC are developing a memorandum of understanding on how they will work together to implement the Calls to Action and increase Indigenous participation in sport.
The role of sports in reconciliation
Gordon Reed is a citizen of the Teslin Tlingit Council and he is the longtime President of the Yukon Aboriginal Sports Circle.
“We have this holistic belief that sports benefit youth in mental, emotional, physical and spiritual ways,” says Gordon. “Sports provide opportunities, leadership development and a sense of inclusion, where they may not otherwise exist.”
He says participation in sports and recreation can help with many social problems that communities are facing.
“These sorts of healthy opportunities can build their self-esteem and confidence and have spin-off effects that can reduce the risk of suicide and substance abuse.” He says sports and recreation are not just a benefit to youth, but to the whole community.
“Sport is a place to create social connection and a sense of belonging,” explains Gael.
Gael says sports transmit values and culture. It's important that those working in sports take a reconciliation-focused lens and think about how to make these spaces inclusive of Indigenous values and participation.
The North American Indigenous Games: much more than a sporting event
Megan, Gordon, Gael and others were involved in bringing over 130 Yukon athletes, coaches and mission staff to the North American Indigenous Games. Gael was the Chef de Mission, alongside assistant Chef de Mission Megan and Karee Vallevand with Kwanlin Dün First Nation. They worked together to coordinate everything from uniforms to travel to coach selection.
Gordon says NAIG is much more than a sporting event. “The games are an opportunity to experience and showcase our culture as Indigenous people.”
There’s song, language, dance, meeting other athletes, and learning about training programs or scholarships. He says the games can open many doors.
“The Games build a sense of pride in being an Indigenous person,” he says.
Megan has been to 11 other multisport games but this was her first NAIG. “The opening ceremonies gave me goosebumps.” She said there was cheering and traditional songs played by the Selkirk Spirit Dancers and drummers who led them in.
“It really felt like a celebration - of not only sport, but culture.”
Shesays the Yukon is fortunate because we put as much emphasis on NAIG as other multisport games, which is different than other jurisdictions. This year, the Yukon government almost doubled its funding support for NAIG.
NAIG reaches a different community than other games and it can be a life-changing experience to participate in an event of this magnitude. For many youths, it's their first and maybe only large sporting event. What sets NAIG apart is that it's a social and cultural gathering for Indigenous youth.
Gael says it builds identity to be surrounded by other Indigenous youth from across North America. “It's an important element in people’s lives. They will remember it for a long time because it opens their eyes to what it means to be Indigenous.”
The 2023 NAIG was Team Yukon's most successful games to date. Team Yukon participated in 11 sports and brought home 39 medals from 5 different sports.
Working together to increase opportunities
Megan, Gord and Gael's work does not stop with NAIG. They are working together on a number of initiatives to increase Indigenous participation and opportunities in sports and recreation.
Megan says she works closely with roughly half the sport governing bodies in the Yukon and several community recreation organizations. She helps them increase Indigenous participation in sport and build connections with the Yukon Aboriginal Sport Circle.
For her, sports and recreation are one and the same. It's about adults and youth coming together to participate in health activities. Her main focus is to reduce barriers so that everybody has equal access to these opportunities.
Megan says, "when you see community involvement in activities, it's just a healthier, more vibrant community."
"Our rural communities struggle to offer some programming. Often it comes down to volunteer capacity, not access to facilities. Sometimes we don't have the people to organize and lead sports."
Gordon also highlighted the need for community champions and coaches. "I'd like to see more people find a way to stay involved."
He also encourages people with kids to get in touch with YASC to see what kind of support is available. YASC has a Legacy Fund to support Indigenous athletes to achieve their goals. YASC is also the sport governing body for Arctic Sports, Dene Games and Archery.
Gael says other sport governing bodies are reaching out to ask how to make their sports more inclusive. He says it's a long process, but they are seeing the beginning of a movement towards more reconciliation-focused sports and recreation.