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‘Sport is a big part of who we are’: How Ottawa’s Masters Indigenous Games is harnessing the power of sport to bring communities together

The Masters Indigenous Games brings together indigenous communities from all around the world to compete in six sports, as well as to share their unique cultural practices. SportsPro spoke to the event’s organisers and Ottawa Tourism to find out from how they plan to ensure those representing their communities leave with lasting memories.

23 August 2023 Josh Sim

Indigenous Sport and Wellness Ontario

It is no exaggeration to say that the Masters Indigenous Games unites communities in a way that few other sporting events can.

First held in Toronto in 2018, the Games brings together Indigenous communities from not only across North America, but also around the world, to take part in different sporting disciplines.

Taking place in Ottawa from 24th to 27th August, the second edition of the Games will see more than 600 athletes compete in a six-sport programme of archery, canoe, basketball volleyball, golf and athletics. Those attending include a delegation of Rarámuri athletes from Mexico and among the participants is a golfer in his mid-seventies from Manitoba.

What particularly stands out about the Masters Indigenous Games is the spotlight it shines on wider indigenous culture. According to the 2021 national census, just over 1.8 million of Canada’s population is indigenous, while there are more than 600 recognised First Nations governments or bands, each having their own distinctive culture.

The Games shines a light on different Indigenous cultures and their respective traditions (Image credit: Indigenous Sport and Wellness Ontario)

While the Games take place, organisers have also set up a cultural village at Lansdowne Park, home of Ottawa’s professional soccer, football and basketball teams, which will feature indigenous artists, performers and storytellers. Vendors from across the country will also be present in the village to serve up a range of traditional cuisines and snacks to those attending.

For Dustin Peltier, manager of marketing and communications for Indigenous Sport and Wellness Ontario (ISWO), the event offers the chance to bring together different groups, who will share and pass on traditions largely unknown to the wider population.

“Culture, at the end of the day, is at the core of these Games,” he tells SportsPro. “We want to give everybody the opportunity to learn about the different cultures through the artists, through the vendors, through the cuisine, through the traditional demonstrations and also through the sporting experiences.

“Sport is a big part of who we are as indigenous people. It plays a very important part in bringing everybody together.”

As well as bringing together communities, the Games also provides the opportunity to introduce indigenous culture to individuals who may have grown up in a different environment, particularly members of the younger generation.

“A lot of people are indigenous, but they may not have ever really lived in their home communities,” Peltier continues. “They may not have had that opportunity to take part in cultural practices on a regular basis.

“They’re going to be at the Games and participating. For a lot of them, this is really important as well. It’s an opportunity for them to learn more about indigenous culture as a whole, and all the different traditions that take place.”

The Games provide an opportunity for young people to learn more about traditional Indigenous demonstrations (Image credit: Indigenous Sport and Wellness Ontario)

Harnessing the power of sport

According to Peltier, the Games demonstrate the power sport has to bring people together, while it also provides an opportunity for older participants to relive their former athletic glories through their lifelong participation in sport.

“It’s always the parents and the adults that are taking their kids to these other Games, right?,” Peltier says. “But for some people, the fire still burns. They want that opportunity to go and showcase some of their athletic abilities, to go and take part in the cultural celebrations.”

With sport forming a “big part” of many indigenous people’s lifestyles, coverage of the performances of those competing often spreads quickly across communities. On the Games’ Facebook page, posts are flooded with comments of admiration and support from users expressing pride in the individuals who are representing their community.

“What happens during these Games is the communities rally behind the athletes, because they’re the people from their home community or First Nations community that are here taking part in the Games,” Peltier says.

“You constantly see on social media that people are making posts, saying how proud they are of their people and how well they’re doing at the Games.”

Communities rally proudly behind those representing them at the Games (Image credit: Indigenous Sport and Wellness Ontario)

The impact on Ottawa

Due to the North American Indigenous Games being pushed back, Ottawa has had to be flexible in its approach to hosting the Masters Indigenous Games, which are now taking place a month later than initially scheduled.

Nevertheless, Robert Kawamoto, Ottawa Tourism’s assistant director for major events and sport, is expecting the event to deliver significant economic impact, as well as a social impact for Canada’s capital city. In the build up to the Games, organisers have worked closely with Ottawa Tourism and the city’s officials to help spread the word about the event to the wider population.

Additionally, events are being held in different corners of the city to help attract people from different areas to attend. The athletics is being held at the Terry Fox Athletics Facility, while the University of Ottawa is hosting the basketball and volleyball events. The Canadian Golf and Country Club will be the site for the golf, with the canoe event to take place at Rideau Canoe Club.

Meanwhile, an opening gala is being held in the Grand Hall of the Canadian Museum of History. Once the competition is over, a closing ceremony will take place at Lansdowne Park.

“A lot of the work that we do in hosting major sporting events in Ottawa is based upon our partners in our community, and their interest to be a part of it,” Kawamoto says.

“We don’t want to bring an event to our city just because it serves a purpose of economic benefit for one group of people, and then they leave. We’d rather try to find something a lot more holistic, and something a lot deeper, and something that’s more rich in engagement of people and relationships. It’s about the social impacts for our community, and for the participants that have their event in Ottawa.

“It’s a very purposeful-minded approach to working with partners that want to host events in Ottawa, with the similar ideals that we have to our organisers. In this case, it fit beautifully. It was a win-win situation for both our indigenous groups and our stakeholders and community members, and indigenous members in our community.

“So it was a really good fit in that way and that’s why we pursue these events.”

What attendees can expect

As for what those attending the Games can expect, Peltier hopes the event will leave a lasting impression for those arriving from different communities, as well as for locals curious to experience something different. He is also looking forward to seeing the expression of bewilderment on many faces as they take in the sights and sounds of some of the cultural practices and performances set to take place.

“The power of sport and its ability to bring people together is going to be on full display here in Ottawa,” he says. “That’s going to be one of the biggest social impacts, whether you’re indigenous or not.

“I think there’s going to be crowds drawn to a lot of the competitions, as well as the cultural village and the other activities surrounding the Games.”

But with the focus of the Games being the unification of different indigenous communities from around the world, the number one priority is to ensure those taking part leave with unforgettable memories.

“Overall, we just want to make sure this is one of the best possible experiences that are out there for our indigenous people,” Peltier adds. “We just want to see people come together and want to see the power of sport, the power of indigenous culture, help to do that.

“This is an experience that people remember for a lifetime, it’s something that they’ll always carry with them. They come home with new friendships with all the people they’ve met.

“At the end of the day, that’s really the ultimate goal for these games.”

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