It’s been six long years since the flags for the North American Indigenous Games were flying in the wind. But when they were finally run up the flagpoles once again, Quebec’s Eastern Door and the North team rose to the occasion.
First Nations youth from all over the province, including a large contingent from Eeyou Istchee, flew to the event in Regina July 20-26 courtesy of the Assembly of First Nations. Thirty-nine Cree youth participated in various track-and-field events as well as basketball and volleyball. In total, the 250 athletes on the EDN team were among 4500 from across North America.
The EDN finished fourth overall out of the 20 teams that competed on behalf of different provinces and states, bringing home 20 gold, 21 silver and 17 bronze medals.
Eeyou Istchee’s big winner was 17-year-old Miranda Blacksmith, who won three gold medals for the 1500-metre race, the 3000-metre race and the 6k cross-country races, in which she broke the NAIG record. Blacksmith also won silver for the 800-metre race, all in the under-19 category.
Looking back at her record-breaking race, Blacksmith said she was just running and was shocked by the result because she wasn’t expecting to win.
“I didn’t think that I had broken the record. I thought I would come in at around 28 minutes because usually when I run 5 km it takes me 23 minutes. But when I ran the 6 km, it took me only 22 minutes. I was so surprised,” recalled Blacksmith.
“I was just running. There was another girl in front of me who I stayed behind. Then at the end there was a big hill and when we hit it I ran but I think she stopped and that is when I sprinted to the finish line.”
Blacksmith trained in her hometown of Mistissini with coach Patrice Dominique. But she would never have started running had it not been for her uncle.
“Before I was into sports I was always out drinking with my friends. But then my uncle, Alfred Blacksmith, started encouraging me to try sports. He was the first person I went out running with and I would do this every day with him. He’s kind of like my dad as I don’t have one,” said Blacksmith.
“I was doing track first and then I decided to play hockey. I have been doing this for the last three years, but I also play basketball and broomball. I like keeping busy as it keeps me away from alcohol.”
Being at NAIG was a great experience as Blacksmith was able to meet First Nations youth from across Canada through pin trading.
Since attending the games, Blacksmith said she is now even more motivated to keep pushing herself and training harder. Though she won’t be able to compete in the next NAIG because she will be 20 years old, she definitely would like to coach the next EDN team.
“I want to thank God for giving me this opportunity to make it this far. I am thankful for he was there when I was running in those events,” said Blacksmith.
Her message to the youth of the Cree Nation is to believe in yourself, train hard, stay positive and your dreams can come true.
Also bringing home hardware to Eeyou Istchee were Jamie Lee Blacksmith, who won a bronze medal in the 1000-metre canoe race; and the EDN volleyball team, including Mistissini’s Kayleigh Spencer, which won a silver medal.
The male and female basketball teams had their share of wins and losses. Mistissini’s 18-year-old Daylon Longchap, whose basketball team had two wins and two losses, said being at NAIG was very exciting but also a bit scary since he had never attended such a large event.
“My favourite experiences were winning those two games against Florida and Nova Scotia because we really played as a team. It was a great experience,” said Longchap.
Longchap felt a tremendous amount of pride for his team, particularly during the opening and closing ceremonies, as these were the moments where everyone was together, marching out Olympic-style. He said everyone on the team was united and cheering together.
“This has encouraged me to be a chaperone because of the way they were on this trip. They did so much for us and without them we couldn’t have been there, so I would like to return the favour one day for the youth. I would like to be a coach and hopefully get a team to the next NAIG,” said Longchap.
Mistissini’s Kenny MacLeod, who participated in the 400-metre, 800-metre and the 8k races, said he enjoyed the games because people were so friendly. Taking part in the ceremonies was also a huge source for pride.
“Getting to walk out onto that football field, it felt like the Olympics,” said MacLeod.
According to Mistissini Recreation Director John Gosset, who played a large part in organizing the youth and getting to them to qualify for the games, having these young athletes participate was an important experience, as some had not traveled much before.
“Many of them had never played a game against anyone other than Cree teams and so they were nervous and apprehensive. I told them that all teams did the same thing – they put one shoe on at a time, lace it up, warm up and try to figure each other out,” said Gosset.
“You don’t look at a roster in a warm-up and determine that they are better than you just because one guy can dunk. It is a game of invariables.”
Despite the pressure and the nerves, the EDN team fought hard and did remarkably well.
“We were quite good with that (fourth place finish). EDN wore their colours proudly. The big push came in the water as Kahnawake was very strong in the paddling sports and took 39 medals. That got us into the lead in the first few days and that was great,” said Gosset.
“We have six medals from the Cree Nation and so 10% of the total came out of the Cree nation with different circumstances from the south.”