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JV Article: Spirit North: Empowering Indigenous youth through sport


History tells us that the moves we make as Canadians today in the spirit of authentic reconciliation with our Indigenous communities will lay reconciliation foundations for generations to come.

In many ways, Spirit North represents the potential of our times. With its focus on empowering Indigenous youth through sport and play, Spirit North’s efforts are critical to the foundations on which those youth will tread as community members and future leaders.

In the first of a series, through an outreach partnership with the Glacier Resource Innovation Group, Spirit North founder and Olympian Beckie Scott chronicles her personal reconciliation journey.

Beckie Scott Credit: provided by Spirit North office

I grew up in Vermilion, a small prairie town in North-eastern Alberta located just down the Yellowhead highway from the world’s largest Easter egg, and the world’s largest sausage. As the only child of two radical outdoor wilderness enthusiasts determined to hike, canoe, ski and camp every spare minute they had, my childhood was a unique combination of time spent exploring regions as remote as the Churchill river system and familiar as the trail network of Vermilion’s beautiful little provincial park.

Sport was woven into the fabric of our family life and part of my everyday existence. I learned to swim at our local pool, and to ski on the local trails with my parents either coaching, volunteering, or cheering from the sidelines.

Watching CBC’s Sports Saturday together with my Dad was a never-missed weekend ritual and it was there, watching the incredible displays of human spirit as athletes from around the globe competed against each other in stunning displays of passionate, heroic efforts that a vision of myself as an elite athlete; a competitor; an Olympian, began to crystalize.

Despite no real or perceptible athletic talent to speak of, I dove headfirst into the Olympic dream and spent my teenage years racing around the province and soon, the country. I absolutely loved sport for the way it generated camaraderie and created paths and connections to growth and opportunities that I had not known were there before.

I loved the community I was becoming a part of, and I loved the sense of belonging and inclusion that seemed to be part and parcel of being an athlete. It was inspiring, exhilarating and truly exciting.

Following my Olympic dream was not without its challenges and my early years competing on the World Cup circuit were fraught with failures and disappointment. Time and again the depth of field and calibre of competition would deliver a swift gut-kick to my dreams and goals as each pass across the finish line (and publication of the results sheet!) seemed to shutter the doors on my ambitions a little bit further.

Over time, and with the enormous help and contributions of an entire cast of characters united in the same shared vision, I turned a fledgling career into Canada’s first Olympic gold in the sport of cross-country skiing. It was magical, monumental and cause for celebration: it was also a time to reflect on all the gifts and skills I had gained through sport – and chart a new course ahead that involved giving back.

Beckie Scott 2 Credit: provided by Spirit North office

A few years post-retirement, I was invited to visit several Indigenous communities in Northern Alberta and spend a day skiing with the kids. I was humbled by the gracious, warm open welcomes that greeted me at each community; lifted by the joy and smiles that accompanied each session outside with the kids, and awakened to a world of rich cultural diversity, traditions and practices.

I was also given first-hand insight into the realities the destructive legacy of colonization and residential schools had left on Indigenous peoples here in Canada. My eyes were opened to the inequality, disparity of opportunity and systemic barriers that existed for so many, and I grew increasingly uncomfortable with the reality that the same paths to growth, potential and opportunity I had accessed through sport my entire life, were not available to all.

And then, in 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) report was published. For several days, the CBC covered stories of residential school survivors, spoke to the authors, and gave a platform and a voice to those who had not had one for far too long. It was a historical narrative for Canada that had been missing; a critically important education and awakening for the non-Indigenous community.

And when sport was listed several times among the 94 Calls to Action published alongside the TRC report, the vision unfolded as clearly for me as the one to the Olympics had decades before.

And that is how Spirit North began.

At its heart, Spirit North is about connections. Connecting Indigenous children and youth to sport, to play and to the land. To opportunity, strengths, potential and to the fundamental joy of movement. For children and youth living with adversity, sport can be both an outlet and transformational. It is a path to health and wellness – and beyond that a platform to develop life-skills such as leadership, confidence, and courage.

We know systemic barriers such as socio-economic limitation and geographic isolation combine to contribute to low participation rates in sport and physical activity for Indigenous children and youth. We also know these barriers can be overcome, because we’ve seen it. As one school Principal from Black River First Nation said, “I have seen first-hand the positive impact of Spirit North on my students. Resilience, teamwork, belief in themselves and in others, and joy!”

Spirit North Credit: provided by Spirit North office

Many of the students in our programs live challenging lives and tell heart-breaking stories. We know that if there is one solution we can offer, it is the opportunity to connect to something positive. A connection to what might be possible – and what lies within. Through these connections we witness the magic of empowering children to learn, grow, thrive and eventually contribute to the health, strength and vibrancy of their communities.

The principles upon which Spirit North was founded have never changed. We began this program with the belief that sport can change lives, transform communities, inspire individuals, heal and teach. And – that this is an opportunity that should be available to all.


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