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Students participate at inaugural U of M First Nations Learning Day
Posted Thursday, November 24, 2011 2:00 PM

Students from the Faculty of Kinesiology and Recreation Management presented a statement of recognition and reconciliation to Aboriginal students at the inaugural First Nations Learning Day on November 17. The statement was intended for inclusion with Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) materials.

The students’ heartfelt gesture was one of several emotional moments for both the students and those to whom they presented the statement, as well as for the large audience that gathered for the event. Their statement read in part, “As future physical educators, we choose to ally ourselves with Aboriginal children, youth, and their families to create an environment that supports, affirms, and celebrates all students’ cultural and ethnic identities.”

Audience members had just watched the 50-minute film Frontrunners: Niigaanibatowaad, based on the true story of nine Indigenous athletes who ran the 1967 Pan Am Games torch from Minneapolis to Winnipeg but were refused entry into the stadium with it because of their nationhood. The torch was given to someone else to light the cauldron.

The film was made after the athletes were invited back to the Pan Am Games in Winnipeg in 1999, where several of them were reunited. The film also relayed the significance of running for many First Nations cultures.

The panel discussion featured three of those First Nations athletes — Charlie Nelson, Fred Harper and Patrick Bruyere — and focused in part on their experience with residential schools and the path to reconciliation.

All three men related moving and deeply intense personal journeys towards reconciliation and healing. The film, they attested, had a positive effect in their own lives, since it has afforded them opportunity to speak about their experience many times since it was made.

They spoke alongside Ida Moore, Manitoba’s regional liaison to the TRC of Canada, and Laura Robinson, the writer and producer of the documentary.

The afternoon screening and panel discussion, entitled “Frontrunners: Niigaanibatowaad, Forty-Four Years Later — Hope, Reconciliation and New Beginnings,” was held to further educate students and staff about First Nations issues. The event follows the historic apology by the U of M at the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission event in Halifax.

Their time at residential schools included “good things too,” all three noted. There were some good teachers as well as opportunities for involvement with sports programs such as track — alongside the complex, cross-generational negative impacts of abuse and systemic cultural genocide or assimilation.
As one character in the film said, “Residential schools had taught us not to expect much — and we didn’t.”

The emotional fallout, as the men attested, lingers. “I walked that healing process,” as Harper put it, “but we see our children and grandchildren living in a world that’s fast and rough. However, we are to live in harmony. This is the life we are expected to live by the Creator.”

Running functioned as a metaphor on many levels in the film and for the men whose journeys it portrayed. The characteristics and identity evoked by the moniker “runner” extended from athleticism to cultural stamina and survival, to a lasting terror, shame and anger difficult to escape.
Sport is often uncritically portrayed as good, noted Jane Watkinson, dean of the Faculty of Kinesiology and Recreation Management, in introducing the screening and panel discussion of Frontrunners. “But it too has a history that must be acknowledged,” she said.

The statement of recognition and reconciliation was an initiative led by students who had studied the film in a course on cultural awareness in physical education taught by Joannie Halas of Kinesiology.

The day was a collaborative event that also featured remarks by resident Elder in Migizii Agamik and Residential School survivor Garry Robson and Deborah Young, the U of M’s executive lead, Indigenous achievement, whose office supported the event. Young also moderated the panel discussion, and said she was very pleased with the inaugural event, which represents a start to fulfillment of the aims she set with the new office. The TRC was asked by Young to participate.

TRC representative Ida Moore characterized the event as being in the spirit of the TRC, whose mandate, she noted, was “to tell and hear and gather the truth,” even while “learning to reconcile our own experience within ourselves, learning how to speak with each other about it. Learning how to hug, as Patrick [Bruyere] was saying.”

The TRC has so far collected over 2,000 stories and life experiences of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people at statement-collecting events. The objective is to collect stories so “this can be recorded for history,” said Moore, and for Indigenous peoples “to come to a point of recovery in our own communities so that we can move beyond this.”

“One of the goals of the new office [of Indigenous achievement],” said Young after the event, “is precisely this kind of collaboration within the university community, as well as with the larger community.

“To see faculty-led learning events such as this one, where so many students show up and participate and learn about the real experiences of Indigenous people, is a very positive thing. This kind of learning is crucial to our shared community,” she said.

November 17 marks the start of a series of learning days that will take place this year, Young added. Two future events already being planned will focus on Metis and Inuit issues.


November 17, 2011
To the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada

As future physical educators currently studying in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Recreation Management at the University of Manitoba, we commit to supporting the academic and physical achievement of Aboriginal children, youth, and their families. We commit to affirming their cultural identities and to celebrating their contribution to society.

Along with the University of Manitoba’s recent Statement of Apology and Reconciliation to Indian Residential School Survivors, we recognize the difficulties our Aboriginal nations have experienced due to the impact of harmful policies implemented by the federal government and the church. These have left a legacy of pain that has negative repercussions still today. We also recognize the resiliency of Aboriginal peoples as they overcome past atrocities and reclaim their cultural identities.

We commit to being positive role models that engage our Aboriginal youth in culturally relevant physical education. As future physical educators, we choose to ally ourselves with Aboriginal children, youth, and their families to create an environment that supports, affirms, and celebrates all students’ cultural and ethnic identities.

- Students in the 2011 Culturally Relevant Physical Education and Health course
For more information, contact:
Mariianne Mays Wiebe
Editor, The Bulletin
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