by Kinnukana, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
(ANNews) – The Alberta Indigenous Games (AIG) 2023 are taking place in Edmonton, Alberta on Treaty 6 territory and the homeland of the Métis from August 9-19, 2023, at the Saville Community Sports Centre and at Rundle Park. Over 5000 participants have travelled from all over North America, including Ontario, Saskatchewan, Vancouver and Montana, to participate in the various sports. The AIG provides Indigenous youth between the ages of ten and twenty-one, at all skill levels, with the opportunity to participate in seventeen different sports. This year, skate boarding has been added to the list of sporting events.
The AIG evolved from a non-profit organization called Edmonton Native Ball Association (ENBA) formed by Allan Ross in 1999. Allan, the founder of AIG, was a Cree from Timber Bay. He was a star basketball player in high school and college and often said that basketball saved his life. He became a teacher at Edmonton Public Schools and saw the need for Indigenous youth sporting programs. He founded the ENBA, and it grew over time into the AIG with expanded multi-sport games. Allan had a strong vision for the AIG and his goal was to provide sporting opportunities for Indigenous youth in a recreational, welcoming and inclusive way for all levels of athletes. Allan passed away in October 2015, and in his honour, his vision of the games continues to take place each year and youth are continually inspired.
George Houle from Good Fish Lake was a youth participant for four years and was inspired to now becoming an Executive Assistant at the AIG. George said that when he was younger, he watched his older brother and sister come home from the games. He would see them arrive with their swag and hear them talk about the event and he would say to himself that he is going to attend one day too. That day came when he was fourteen and he participated as a member of the local basketball team. He attended with his friends, and they won a bronze medal. George loved it so much that he attended for the following three years and was a member of a Saddle Lake team and also competed individually in the cross-country event.
There are a number of different divisions that youth can play in: Mites, Minis, Juniors, Intermediate, and Seniors. Some sports are co-ed and others are specific to having male and female teams. A youth can play on a community team or in an individual sport. George shared that the games are open to youth who are beginners in a chosen sport, or they can also be playing at a competitive level. The sport coordinators assess each child’s abilities and puts them in different pools.
George said, “We believe that it is a great system. The games are not really about winning first place, it is about giving Indigenous youth at all levels an opportunity to reclaim their inner self because some of them are affected by the impacts of residential schools and it is very intimidating when you sign up for a sports event and you see that it’s all competitive. I think this is a great thing that we’ve done because it gives everyone an opportunity to just grow.”
The AIG takes pride in being a sport development event. The organization believes in the holistic development of athletes, and they offer individual Circle of Courage awards. The Circle of Courage has four categories: Belonging, Independence, Mastery and Generosity. The Belonging award focuses on kindness to others and good sportsmanship. The Independence award focuses on helping others and volunteering. The Mastery award focuses on being exceptional in a sport, giving best effort and acting as a role model for peers. The Generosity award focuses on problem solving and making thoughtful decisions for others. The Circle of Courage awards teaches Indigenous youth about important values to focus on.
In order to also instill pride, communities have the opportunity to compete for points based on winning gold, silver, bronze and points for good sportsmanship. At the end of the games, points are tallied up, champions are identified, and winners receive a trophy and/or a banner to take home.
The AIG also provides scholarships for older athletes entering post secondary training or trades training to help out with initial student costs. In order to be eligible an athlete must have graduated from high school and must be enrolled in university, college or trade school in the Fall of 2023. Athletes must also have participated in AIG playing a sport and can only apply for the sport that they played in. Some University and College Sport Scouts are also attending AIG to watch the participants and pick up potential players.
The AIG relies on their volunteers in order to be successful. George stated that “it is mainly volunteers that come out and help with the organizing. With 5000 participants, it would be really hard to organize without the volunteers. They are the most crucial part of the games. We appreciate our volunteers, and we have a dinner for them and a little round dance just to honour them and say thank you. These volunteers are extremely determined, and they are amazing. They show up every morning to where they have been assigned to and we appreciate that a lot.” The AIG also has many sponsors of the games who also receive recognition for their generous contributions.
The AIG provides a great opportunity for young Indigenous people to be involved in recreational sports and inspires them in so many ways. George said, “The games have done so much for me. I was inspired by Jacob Hendy, CEO who works so hard and by seeing the games happen every year consistently and always being successful. That inspires me to keep going and each year I have been able to do more.”