Against all odds: Staging the North American Indigenous Games

When more than 5,000 Indigenous athletes, coaches and support staff are introduced at the opening ceremony for the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) on this Sunday (CBCSports.ca, 7:30 p.m. ET), there’s going to be a small group of people behind the scenes breathing a sigh of relief and shedding a few tears.

That group, the NAIG team, tasked with pulling off the Games in just one year against seemingly impossible odds, is like a small family at this point, bound by the understanding of the impact these Games can have now and into the future.

It’s the first time NAIG is being held outside of Western Canada.

“The pressure of having these Games here with just one year of preparation compared to three or four years for a past Games has presented challenges,” said NAIG general manager Michael Cvitkovic.

Cvitkovic has a lengthy sports resume including time spent at Tennis Canada and the Toronto Raptors. He left his full-time job for a year-long sprint in order to put the Games on. Getting the support staff was his first order of business.

“I sat in on all 142 interviews and we knew how important that process was going to be to get the right people because we didn’t have time to fix it.”

Out of those 142 interviews, Cvitkovic and a few others narrowed the team down to just 14 full-time staff. It’s been that small group of people who have been working around the clock for the past year who are about to pull off these Games against all odds.

“We needed to make sure the people we hired were doing this for the right reasons and understanding the impact this could have in reconciliation.”

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Standing right beside Cvitkovic during those daunting early days was NAIG CEO Marcia Trudeau. She knows all too well the power of sport within Indigenous communities. In fact, much of Trudeau’s life has revolved around sport, from her early days watching her parents curl, to playing lacrosse at Brock University, to being the director at the Aboriginal Sport and Wellness Council of Ontario.

“Having a really good understanding of the regional, provincial, national and international landscape of what sport and physical activity mean to Indigenous people is crucial,” she said. “Culture is tied into that and how everything is interconnected. You can’t have physical wellness without being mentally well.”

Trudeau has made many sacrifices along with her team in order to be ready for Sunday.

“I didn’t uproot my family so they’re still at home in Wikwemikong and I commute weekly to Toronto. [Arriving] Sunday or Monday … coming back Thursday or Friday.”

At home on the First Nation, a six-hour drive from Toronto on the eastern part of Manitoulin Island, is her husband and two daughters who have spent little time with Trudeau over the past year.

“I couldn’t do the work that needs to be done without the support from family and my husband taking on most of the parenting duties the last year.”

Lack of time and money

Trudeau and Cvitkovic knew if they were going to be successful in delivering a Games they could be proud of they would have to be strategic and resourceful. Time was working against them and so was the event’s budget.

“We’ve always known there were going to be significant challenges and time is one of the biggest things we did not have,” said Trudeau. “And our budget was a fraction of what other Games have had access to.”

Cvitkovic says their total budget is around $ 11 million. When he starts breaking down the numbers of what things cost, the money runs out fast.

“[The] $ 4.5 million is just to put a roof over the heads of the athletes and feed them. Then it’s $ 750,000 for transportation, $ 500,000 for security and medical personnel,” he said.

Not factored into that is the rentals and venues to host the 14 different sports. But the one advantage helping with the budget is the legacy left by the 2015 Pan Am and Para Pan Am Games, said Cvitkovic.

“From an operational stand point we’re not building any infrastructure. This is the first real legacy Games after Pan Am and Para Pan Am Games.”

Cvitkovic recalls their first mission staff meeting, which was the fifth day on the job and exactly one year out from the Games. The NAIG team brought the mission staff to the swimming venue as part of the tour.

“We finished the tour and were about to get on the bus and there were two mission staff members who were in tears,” he said. “At first we thought something was wrong. And they turned and said isn’t this where Ryan Cochrane and Penny Oleksiak and Olympic swimmers train? And our athletes are going to get to swim in this pool?”

It’s just one example of the legacy left by the Pan Ams and what this all means, according to Cvitkovic.

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Perspective, personal narratives shared

The NAIG host committee is made up of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Each meeting starts with 10 minutes of Indigenous lessons on culture and history.

Much of the success they’ve found can be attributed to the diverse voices and different perspectives they have within the team.

Take Cvitkovic and Trudeau for instance.

Trudeau is Anishinaabekwe and lives on a First Nation with her family. Cvitkovic is non-Indigenous and lives in Whitby, Ont., with his family. Together the two have shared stories and gained a great appreciation for one another, the Games and they both have gained a better understanding of what’s at stake.

“I didn’t know anything about Indigenous culture growing up. There was an Indigenous Friendship Centre but I didn’t know much else,” Cvitkovic said.”

“I’ve certainly learned more in the last 11 months as general manger here than I have my entire life.”

For Trudeau, her work is deeply personal.

“I have two little girls. One is three and the other is six. To me it’s about being a role model to them,” she said.

Trudeau recalls her childhood when her parents were busy with baseball or curling, something she says played a role in getting her involved in sport.

“I remember my dad was a fastball player growing. My mom and dad played recreational softball. When you’re little and growing up around the ball diamonds you’re either playing with your friends or you want to play too.”

“My parents also played curling growing up so we were always at the curling rink and me and my brother grew up and played. We were exposed to sport and had a love of sport.”

Impact on Indigenous communities

To better understand what the Games would mean to Indigenous communities across North America, Trudeau and Cvitkovic planned a tour in February to visit some of northern Ontario’s fly-in communities.

There were only a limited number of spots for staff members and Trudeau recalls the meeting they told people there would be this opportunity to visit a couple of communities.

“Every single person had expressed an interest in going and we had to do a staff lottery to see who would go on those two trips,” Trudeau said.

“To me that tells a lot about their willingness to learn and expand their knowledge.”

For Cvitkovic, that tour was life-changing and is what’s motivating him during these long days leading up to the Games.

“It certainly left a scar. I left that trip certainly wanting to lead and inspire this team to provide the best opportunities for the athletes but I also left pretty pissed off,” he said.

“I was pretty angry because what I saw is in our own province.”

It had the same effect for many others on the team who are using those experiences gained from the northern communities to propel them to the finish line in advance of the Games.

 Team 88

The theme for these Games has quickly become Team 88, which references the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 88th call to action directing Canada to support Indigenous sports.

“We call upon all levels of government to take action to ensure long-term Aboriginal athlete development and growth, and continued support for the North American Indigenous Games,” reads the 88th call to action.

Trudeau knows first-hand the role sport can play in development and growth.

“I really want people to see the sporting accomplishments from athletes across Turtle Island but also to witness their pride in themselves and communities of who they are and where they come from. And also the resilience of Indigenous people,” she said.

For Cvitkovic, he understands the immense opportunity these Games present in putting the 88th call to action into the homes of Canadians.

“I hope when people leave these Games there’s a lot of discussion about the challenges and the tragedies that have been experienced for generations within the Indigenous community,” he said. “Team 88 is about just that. It’s about recognizing what happened in the past but moving forward and using the power of sport to change the dialogue.”

The North American Indigenous Games begin in six days. Thousands of athletes from across Turtle Island will gather on the traditional lands and homelands of the Huron-Wendat Nation, Metis Nation of Ontario, Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation and Six Nations. A year ago there were many who thought putting this together was next to impossible, except for a small group led by Trudeau and Cvitkovic, now ready to welcome them to Toronto.   

“To have them all gathered in one spot is truly strong medicine,” Trudeau said.

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