Cree youth succeed in the 2017 North American Indigenous Games

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The final stage of the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) took place in Toronto July 17-21, but for participating athletes, the preparation stretched back a whole year.

More than 20 Cree athletes competed across a variety of sports as part of Quebec’s Eastern Door and North (EDN) team, helping EDN come in fourth overall after BC, Saskatchewan and Ontario. EDN brought home a total of 77 medals – 22 gold, 36 silver and 19 bronze.

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Waskaganish’s Sylvester Moar, 14, was point-guard for the EDN basketball team, who fell a point short of a bronze medal in a fiercely fought semi-final game. He was sad to lose by such a small margin, but is looking to the future.

“We’ve been training hard all year,” Moar said. “I’m going to play again next year – and keep trying my best to be a better basketball player.”

Moar first tried out for the EDN team last year, and since then he’s been focused on basketball. In the lead-up to the NAIG, different EDN teams had been competing all over the province to sharpen their skills. In Moar’s case, the basketball team tried its luck against high-school and college basketballers in Montreal.

“They were much older guys than us, and they beat the hell out of us!” Moar laughed. “But it made us stronger.”

Jean Christophe Jobin, EDN, is unsuccessful with the tag against the sliding Bryce Joseph, ON,during 2017 North American Indigenous Games baseball action between EDN and ON at the UofT Scarborough campus' Dan Lang Field in Toronto, Ontario on July 17, 2017.(NAIG2017/Peter Power)

Elijah Awashish is the father of twin swimmers Cedric and Caleb Awashish, 16, who helped the EDN’s swim team win 11 of its 14 medals.

“They were very excited to compete for EDN, though they weren’t able to determine exactly who the other competitors were,” Elijah explained. “It was their first time there, and there are a lot of competitive clubs out west – BC and Alberta. They seem to have a lot more swimmers. I think the sport is more developed out there, or maybe the Native communities have more access to swimming clubs and programs. But my two were excited. They found out last year that they’d qualified for the team, so they’ve been training for a whole year.”

Elijah noted that the boys had been lucky to grow up in Mistissini, close to Chibougamau, which has a swim-club and coaches they could rely on.

“They’re really passionate about swimming, and they have access to training and coaching,” he said. “It’s something they really enjoy doing, and they train up to six days a week, 12 to 15 hours weekly in the water. “

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While traditionally swimming was not a typical Cree sport, that’s changing with the introduction of pools into the communities – especially those where it’s too cold to swim in lakes during the summer.

“In Mistissini we have the lake, so you can jump off the dock and swim around, but there aren’t that many swimmers,” said Gabriel Rabbitskin, a competitive swimmer originally from Mistissini who coached the EDN team. “It’s not something we’ve really discovered yet as a major passion for the youth. But now it’s coming around and people are getting more interested. Most of the Cree communities are getting their own pools now. It’s nice to see the bands across the Cree Nation starting to invest in more diverse sports and hobbies for all the people from the communities to enjoy, and find their own passions.”

Rabbitskin has been a swimming competitor for a number of years – he ended his career with a final competition the same weekend as the NAIG opening ceremonies – and he started a swim program in Mistissini to teach the sport to youths, adults and Elders. Elijah Awashish credits him as an enormous inspiration to the community, as well as on Cedric and Caleb specifically.

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Rabbitskin, meanwhile, is equally proud of the Awashish boys, whom he described as a double-threat. “They’re twins, but one is tall and one is shorter. One is better in long distances, one is better in short distances. That has helped them accumulate a lot of medals, having respective events like that – one did well at the longer distances like the 1500, the 400, freestyle. The other was great on the shorter distances: the 50 metre, and the 100 metre.”

Rabbitskin hopes Cedric and Caleb Awashish – and all the other Cree youths who participated in the games – will inspire their peers to get involved in sports.

“When they returned from the games, I’m pretty sure they – as well the other participants – are walking around with their NAIG jackets on,” Rabbitskin said. “It creates interest in other youths who ask, ‘What do I have to do to go to these games?’ In swimming, the answer is you have to be in the water every day. We think it’s difficult, but when you start to learn the techniques, it becomes easier. If you want to get better, you just have to go in the pool more often.”

Moar, for his part, is ready to keep it up. After playing basketball in Waskaganish for three years, he’s beginning to think more about his future in the sport.

“I want to try out for a basketball college in the future so I need to join a high school team down south,” he explained. “They make it more competitive.”


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