Kristina Groves, CBC Sports, March 24, 2012

It’s the honest truth that most of the news we hear about First Nations communities in Canada is overwhelmingly bad. I pay close enough attention to current affairs to at least know that. The most recent wave of bad news to wash over the country has been about the remote Attawapiskat First Nation in Northern Ontario. Did anybody see? Did anybody hear? Maybe it’s the relentless barrage of global tragedies that makes us numb to more bad news.

We either do not believe or support what we hear. We are loath to admit that this is the reality in Canada, our Canada, that Aboriginal children are reaching suicide rates substantially higher than elsewhere in Canada, and the world.

It seems unlikely to us that they receive significantly less funding for healthcare and education, that some have no school at all and that their parents still struggle to overcome years of trauma at residential schools.

I will admit that I have been, while not unsympathetic to the issue, at least embarrassingly uneducated.

So when I found out that Right To Play, for whom I have been an athlete ambassador for several years, was working in Ontario with Aboriginal youth I immediately felt the urge to visit and learn more. I wanted to go and see if Right To Play could have the same positive impact there as they have had in so many other places around the world, using sport and play as tools for development for hundreds of thousands of disaffected youth. Maybe this would finally be a bit of good news for the First Nations people of Canada.

On the first night of the trip I was honoured to sit with the Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Shawn Atleo at a dinner organized by Right To Play. I asked him what the greatest difficulty facing Canada’s Aboriginal people was. His answer surprised me. It was not alcoholism, drug abuse, suicide, education, healthcare, or unemployment, but rather the very root of all of these problems – a systemic lack of self-confidence.

Basic premise

The basic premise of the Right To Play First Nations PLAY (Promoting Life skills in Aboriginal Youth) program is the development of youth leadership, and by extension confidence, through local community mentors. The youth themselves identify the needs of their own communities and then work together to implement new ideas and activities. There has been a steep learning curve. I learned about the challenges they’ve faced in just getting kids to show up, to speak, to engage. These are early days, but there are already plenty of successes to celebrate.

And then comes me, an Olympic athlete with weird skates and shiny medals, hoping to share and teach and learn. I’m not sure what I expected, but what I encountered was a sort of chaos: kids running around yelling, not paying attention, playing silly games. To the staff this was a thing of beauty — kids running, playing, yelling!!

Amidst the chaos, while attempting in vain to teach some of the kids to skate, terrified that one of them would fall and hit their head, I wondered to myself if I had made a mistake in being there, talking to kids about the Olympics and trying to teach them to speed skate when they had little hope of understanding my life, in much the same way I had little hope of understanding theirs. I was doubtful that a connection could be made, in so short a time, across a gap so wide.

After the community feast in Sheshegwaning First Nation, as we were preparing to drive back to Sudbury, Ont., one of the girls I met asked me if I was ever coming back. I replied that yes, maybe one day I would make it back there for another visit. Still unsure of my impact I asked the girl why she wanted me to come back. And she said, “Because nobody ever comes here.”

Her reply made me feel good and sad at the same time. I helped make a difference, even though it was small, but who else is ever going to go there, just to see them? I visit schools in Calgary all the time, where the kids are accustomed to special visitors and presentations. In Nipissing, Ont., and Sheshegwaning they are not so lucky. But in Nipissing and Sheshegwaning, so I hear, the kids are still buzzing about my visit.

In the end I understand more intimately how little I actually know about the complexity and scope of the history of First Nations. I am more empathetic to the Aboriginal people of Canada and inspired to continue supporting Right To Play in their efforts to make a difference.

I can only speak to what I now know I don’t know. I saw the beginnings of positive change, I saw smiling kids who were excited to play, use their voices and even perform traditional dances just for me. I saw the seeds of confidence being sown and the potential of a new generation begin to sprout. It’s new growth of good news — and that’s good news to me.

Kristina Groves retired in 2011 as one of Canada’s greatest speedskaters. Groves won four Olympic medals in 2006 and 2010, and remains Canada’s most decorated skater at the world single distance championships, winning 13 career medals including four gold.

AuthorKristina Groves