Once upon a time there were ten Indigenous boys who could run like the wind. They proved to themselves and Canada they were capable of achieving greatness. They represented their country and accomplished a remarkable athletic feat.
But Canada didn’t care.
Three of those boys, now men in the 60s and 70s, were recently at Trent University, in Nogojiwanong/Peterborough, Ontario, participating in an evening of Truth and Reconciliation, and talking — about running, racism, reconciliation and healing.
(Warning: This article contains descriptions of sexual assault.)
In 1967, ten Indigenous teenage boys, nine of whom were Manitoba residential school students, were chosen to run 800 kilometres carrying the Pan American Games’ torch from St. Paul, Minnesota to the Games’ host stadium in Winnipeg, Manitoba. They were all outstanding long-distance runners, having learned to run as children at their First Nations’ homes. They accomplished this feat in one week — in 95 degree (F) weather carrying a 12 to 15 lb. torch — re-tracing an ancient message route that their ancestors had used. In the 19th century, the route had been used by Aboriginal runners to deliver mail from United States to Canada.
But when they arrived at the stadium in Winnipeg, the torch was taken from them and given to a non-Indigenous runner who was then given the honour of carrying it into the stadium. They were not invited in. Instead, they were sent to a near-by restaurant where they watched the opening ceremonies on television.
Thirty-two years later, the province of Manitoba issued an official apology.
And at a special ceremony during the opening of the 1999 Pan Am Games when Winnipeg again hosted them, seven of the original Indigenous runners, then in their 50s, entered the stadium in war canoes. One of them held the Games’ torch high. They had finally finished their journey, delivered the torch, and given recognition.
The event at Trent University opened with the screening of the APTN/National Film Board (NFB) documentary by We Wai Kai First Nation director Lori Lewis — Niigaanibatowaad: FrontRunners — which tells their story. It is about the segregation of the Indigenous athletes and their despair and abuse suffered in the residential school system, according to the NFB.
Its website says the film’s title refers to the person who runs in front of the dogsled on the trap line, a job for which the runners from Northern Manitoba were responsible. There is no word for “athlete” in Ojibway. Running was almost like breathing in that it was the main form of transportation. It was also one way the runners survived residential school — if they made the track team they could escape its confines as often as possible to travel to track meets. If they were successful at competitions, they would receive more food at school, says the website.
These are the stories of Patrick, Bill, and Charlie as they told them to the Trent University audience, after the film.
“When I found out what priests did to little boys, it ended my dream.”
At age 20 in 1967, Patrick Bruyere was the oldest of the ten runners that summer. It was the first time he had been in a station wagon, the first time staying in a hotel, and his first experience with air conditioning.
“For me the run was enjoyable. I enjoyed the camaraderie that developed with the other runners,” he told the Wenjack Theatre listeners, explaining how he was working at a Royal Bank when invited to run and got time off to participate.
Patrick, now 71, is from Sagkeeng First Nation, northeast of Winnipeg, Manitoba. It’s where he attended residential school.
“We went to mass an awful lot (at school). We went to benediction a lot. We prayed a lot. I was very good at Latin and became one of the best students. I was in awe of a priest as I stared up to him and heard the strength of his voice. I thought maybe I could grow up to be a priest.”
“Until I found out what priests did to little boys. It ended my dream, and changed my way of thinking about the church.”
He later struggled with alcohol abuse. Now he lives day to day and hopes, that by sharing his story, he can help at least one person. Throughout his journey, his wife has been by his side.
“It took me a long time. I’m glad I’m still here, still alive. I’m glad every day I wake up and can have a smoke,” he said, as the audience laughed.
“There’s quite a few things for us to sort out about First Nations and Canada. We’re on the road to creating a new understanding between people.”
Charlie Nelson, 68, still lives on his home reserve, the Roseau River First Nation south of Winnipeg, Manitoba. He attended the Assiniboia Indian Residential School in Winnipeg for Grades 9, 10 and 11.
After school, Charlie travelled to communities and taught basic literacy with a provincial college. In 1975, he began studying with Indigenous elders, for whom he has the greatest respect.
“To me, the one elder gave me back what the Creator gave to us in the beginning – a good mind, and the ability to listen and reason things out. I pray for good energy,, enlightenment, strength and clarity,” he told the gathering.
“When I see all the destruction of today, I wonder if seven generations from now they will survive, but we’re doing our best,” he continued. “There’s quite a few things for us to sort out about First Nations and Canada. We’re on the road to creating a new understanding between people.”
“We have some really bright children who are stepping up and I think the torch has been handed down. My mind is clear, my heart is full.”
“We are here to tell the truth.”
William Chippeway, 69, originally from Lake Manitoba First Nation west of Winnipeg, attended a residential school located on the near-by Sandy Bay First Nation. He now lives in Edmonton.
“As part of the Truth and Reconciliation recommendations, I feel it is my responsibility to tell the truth of what happened. It’s up to the other Canadians to reconcile if they want to,” Bill said.
Unfortunately, like so many others, Bill’s residential school story is one of pain and betrayal. For years after, he abused booze and chemicals.
“Bad things happened there,” he said. “They happened not only to me but to thousands and thousands of other Indian students. Each one of us has a different story but basically they’re the same. We got abused physically, mentally and sexually.”
But he remembers the Pan-Am games’ run fondly.
“When I was asked to run with nine brothers of mine I was so excited. I had never experienced travelling. I was amazed at the hotel room. I couldn’t believe there was a TV there.”
There were white sheets on the beds, he recalled, and that was something new, too.
“In the residential school, we were labelled as ‘dirty Indians’. I was reluctant to sleep on those white sheets. I was scared I would dirty them because I had the words ‘dirty Indian’ pounded into my head so many times.”
It was all part of the residential school experience, Bill continued.
He was driven to the school by an Indian agent on his first day, “and I never saw my mom for many, many years. I never got to know my mom.”
“After I was there a while, I noticed some young boys with chocolate bars, potato chips and pop. I asked them where they got it. They said ‘go to the Brother’, so I did. He welcomed me with hugs and we talked. But when I was leaving, he grabbed me by the crotch and squeezed — and he gave me a quarter.”
One autumn, Bill was working in the school garden, bending over. That same priest approached him from behind, grabbed him by the back of the neck, held him down, and pulled down his pants.
“And the Brother sexually assaulted me right there. He raped me. I’ll never forget the pain. It hurt so much. I had nobody to turn to, nobody to talk to, nobody to cry to. So I just sat there and cried for a long, long time.”
The following spring, it happened again.
“You know, I’ve been on a healing journey for many years and for many, many years I couldn’t talk about it,” Bill said. “But I can now because, for me, sharing and talking about it is a healing process. That’s what the elders told me.”
Bill considered himself very lucky to be chosen for the Pan-Am run. When living on his reserve as a child, he never considered running as a competition. He said they didn’t have bicycles or cars, so they ran everywhere — to the movies; five miles to the beach for the day and five miles back home; or two miles to get water.
“When we arrived at the stadium that day at the end of our Pan-Am run we were met by a man who thanked us and said, ‘You did a good thing for your country — now give us that torch’.”
“We were used to not asking any questions, as we had been forced throughout school, and used to not making any comments. We didn’t. Nothing happened. But after 32 years, the circle was completed. It was a great, great feeling.”
The event was presented by the Chanie Wenjack School of Indigenous Studies, Trent University, and the Peterborough, Ontario, chapter of Amnesty International.
By Melodie McCullough