PtG Article 12.11.2002

The FrontRunners: A Story of Ten Indigenous Runners in Canada

In this article, Laura Robinson explains how and why she wrote the play FrontRunners about ten indigenous runners in Canada. These men had been good runners and students in 1967 when Winnipeg hosted the Pan-Am Games and had been selected to run 800 kilometres with the torch from St. Paul, Minnesota to Winnipeg. However, just before entering the stadium the torch was taken from them and given to a non-Aboriginal runner.

In the summer of 1999 I covered the Pan-American Games in Winnipeg, Manitoba for a variety of newspapers and magazines. But it was during the opening ceremonies that I found the story that has preoccupied me for the past three years.

As is the case for all major Games, the highlight of the ceremonies was the carrying of the Games torch into the stadium. In this case, we watched seven Aboriginal men bring in the torch. These men had been good runners and students in 1967 when Winnipeg last hosted the Pan-Am Games. They had been selected to run 800 kilometres with the torch from St. Paul, Minnesota to Winnipeg, and at the time were told they were 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.

However, despite the fact that the runners were successful in their 1967 journey, and arrived in Winnipeg on time for the Games, the torch was taken from them outside of the stadium and given to a non-Aboriginal runner. The boys were told they could watch the rest of the ceremonies on television from a restaurant where they were served breakfast.

Still in 1967 there were unwritten rules about who could and couldn't be in celebrations and stadiums. This was also Canadas centennial year, and though there was an increasing political understanding of racism in Indigenous communities, sport officials lagged sadly behind. The runners either went home or back to residential school. Nine out of ten of the runners were what we now call residential school survivors.

Aboriginal children kidnapped and sent to school

Between 1800 and 1900 over 130 residential schools were in existence in Canada. It was government policy that Aboriginal children be taken away from their families and civilized in schools paid for by the federal government and run by churches. This was part of the long-term policy of assimilation, so eventually there would be no Indian problem.

In 1903, missionary Hugh McKay admitted that the system was designed, to educate and colonize people against their will. Later, missionary E.F. Wilson challenged the church, saying the schools forced assimilation and disallowed Aboriginal culture and autonomy to exist. He was removed from his post. In 1920 government inspector P.H. Bryce wrote that residential schools were a national crime. His report was published in The Montreal Star and Saturday Night Magazine, but the Canadian public did not heed his warning and the schools continued well into the 20th century, with some still operating into the 1970s.

In reality Christian duty had turned into wide spread abuse and caused a very high mortality rate amongst students. They were malnourished, isolated, and abuse occurred that we could only imagine in nightmares. There were exceptions to this rule, especially if children could be educated in their community until high-school and then went to city-based residential schools close to their reserves.

But the entire youth populations of northern communities were literally kidnapped by the Indian Agent and taken to schools hundreds of kilometres away. Children as young as five and six years old were taken and sometimes didn't see their families for up to seven years. In the summer they were forced to work on school farms and building maintenance while girls were made to clean the schools as well.

Not surprisingly, there has been over one hundred years now that many indigenous children were unable to learn how to be in a family, how to be parents, and how to run their own lives, especially in any traditional way.

A extraordinary story of strength

It is a testimony to the strength of Aboriginal people of Canada that they were not completely wiped out, both physically and spiritually. The story of the ten men who finished their journey and delivered the Pan-Am Games torch thirty-two years after their first attempt is a wonderful example of that strength.

These stories, however, are also filled with tragedy. Of the ten original runners, two died tragic deaths and one is in jail, but the other seven are, in many ways, leaders in their communities. Some have become political in both mainstream politics and Aboriginal politics, and most are very spiritual. They have contributed to a healthier and more whole community in many ways.

There is a feeling of forgiveness and understanding amongst all of them. As Patrick Bruyere of Sagkeeng said when he heard the Manitoba government had apologized to the original runners and asked them to bring in the torch:

"The first thing that popped into my mind was, why couldn't it have happened back then? And then I thought I should have said something or done something, but being brought up in the boarding school you're taught to do what youre told and not ask questions. So I said, Let's go on with this and see where it goes. Let's finish the journey. It just stirs you up inside."

Without question, the opening ceremonies of the 1999 Pan-Am Games were moving and very telling as few Canadians would ever imagined that our real sporting history was not really about fair play at all.

I immediately contacted the runners by phone and each one told me his own story.

"There was incredible energy coming in," said David Courchene Jr. of their entrance to the stadium in 1999. "A gust of wind out of nowhere. The grandfathers were with us. I passed the torch to a young girl. The door is open even further for young people. I hope they see the love and understanding we have as Aboriginal people. There was a silent moment when I passed the torch. I see it as an awakening happening."

Collecting the FrontRunners' stories

The story of the FrontRunners as I started to call them, was told in the October 1999 issue of Aboriginal Voices Magazine, a First Nations arts and culture magazine published out of Toronto by First Nations actor and advocate Gary Farmer.

I used the term FrontRunner because before they were taken from their communities, the boys who lived in northern Manitoba had a special job. They would run in front of their father's dog-sled and make the trail for the dogs to follow along the trap-line where they collected animals. This was a very honourable job to have and took great skill.

When I sent each runner a copy of the magazine I added a note saying I hoped we could tell their story in a much larger venue someday as it was a very important story. For the next few months I did several other sports stories and worked on my book and then in March 2000, I learned that I had been accepted as writer in residence at the University of Calgary for the 2000-01 term. In my application, which I had by then forgotten about, I had said that I wanted to do a screenplay of the FrontRunners story.

Between March and August when I would start my term at the university I tried to visit all the runners in their own communities. At this point I was spending only my own money and as all freelancers know, we have very little of it. Still, I knew this was a very important investment in real history.

In May I flew to Winnipeg and was able to see Charlie Nelson in Rosseau River, Patrick Bruyere and David Courchene Jr. in Sagkeeng, and Charlie Bittern in Berens River. All were extremely generous with their time and stories, and all had unique personalities with a sharp sense of humour that didn't dull their compassion for what this story means.

I believe it is important for white people to put ourselves in circumstances where we become the minority, where it is our language that is the second language, and where our culture and traditions don't necessarily prevail. If at all possible I think we should go to the story and not expect the story come to us (in our urban environment). If you go to the story, the story-teller holds cultural power. The reverse is true if you bring them into an environment like a TV studio or a conference room. I don't think youll hear as much of the story in these places that are rather devoid of spirit and substance.

In June I went to New York to do another story and was able to meet with William Merasty, who had moved to the United States to work. In August, just before I started my tenure at University of Calgary, I went to Red Sucker Lake to see Fred Harper.

Both Red Sucker Lake and Berens River are referred to as fly-in reserves. This means these northern community can only be reached by airplane, though in the winter, a series of winter roads over lakes and rivers allow for vehicle traffic.

In October, I went to Edmonton, Alberta to visit William Chippeway, who had moved there several years earlier. At that time, William Merasty was visiting his son and new grand-child and all three of us could meet together. A few weeks later I went to Edmonton again to meet with William Chippeway and David Courchene Jr. as both were attending a healing conference. I had hours and hours of taped interviews and filled notebooks as well.

Turning the story into a play

In November 2000, the Calgary Institute for the Humanities, which is affiliated with the University of Calgary, decided to celebrate its 25th anniversary. They approached me as they had heard about the FrontRunners and asked if they could bring in an artist in residence to work with me on a project of some kind to celebrate their anniversary.

I immediately thought doing a play of the FrontRunners would be perfect, and contacted an Indigenous director named Sadie Buck, who is from the Six Nations community in Ontario. Somehow, with the great assistance of the University of Calgary (particularly the Faculty of Humanities and the Institute for the Humanities) and the Banff Centre for the Arts, I raised approximately $40,000.00 for the first production of FrontRunners.

In January 2001, I met with David Courchene Jr., Charlie Bittern, and Patrick Bruyere for two days near Sagkeeng and pounded out the basic outline of the story. They spoke for hours and I wrote. Very ugly stories surfaced.

As I mentioned earlier, abuse of children was epidemic in the schools and had left terrible scars. They described the torture and rape of children by priest, principals, and inspectors. They described the feelings of isolation and loss of family that none of us can really imagine, though the collective heart of all of humanity is broken when we hear of children who are stolen. A story that at first sounded like a wonderful tale of reconciliation and forgiveness was turning into a nightmare. These men were truly survivors and my respect for them grew.

On the other hand, this was also a coming of age story. These men had been teen-age boys who were forced into a very narrow and incomplete world in residential school.

However, they arrived in the United States in four white convertibles, new Adidas running shoes and new clothes. They had never stayed in a motel or swum in a pool or slept in a double bed. William Chippeway said it was the first time he had seen white sheets. They were all handsome and well-mannered, and were out numbered by girls ten-to-one in the U.S. because so many young men were in Viet Nam. People came out of their houses and stores to run with them. They were treated like VIP's in the States, and their horizons were broadening rather quickly.

But still, there was another subtext to this story. It was 1967, a time when the Civil Rights Movement was at its peak. While in St. Paul they witnessed a race riot. Mohammed Ali had just declared that he would not fight in Viet Nam. Black protesters let the runners through, but told them, "We have a lot of the same issues." The boys had literally run straight into a public demonstration of the politics of race.

It is important to see the FrontRunners story in this context. It is an incredibly good case study of the systemic racism perpetrated against Aboriginal people in Canada, but it is also part of a much larger universal story of boys who would soon be men in an age that questioned everything and sought to understand the meaning of freedom.

For me, it is natural that this whole story occurs in sport. I believe sport is the real theatrical stage of humanity. How we understand football's World Cup is probably the best example of that. Great segments of the Earth's population stops doing what they are supposed to do and instead turn their hearts and souls to the peoples' sport.

I also believe that, while football, or soccer as we understand it in North America is the first game of the people, running is the first sport. It is for this reason that the runner is understood throughout the world as someone special, someone gifted.

n Ojibway, which is the language of the majority of the FrontRunners, with the rest speaking Cree or Saulteaux, there is no word for athlete. But there is the word, miinegoosewin which means a gift. In Aboriginal nations across North America, the runner has also been the messenger - someone sent out to deliver important messages, sometimes running for hundreds of kilometres. This role is so special that the runner is sometimes referred to as a sacred messenger.

As a former athlete and a sports writer, it is also my belief that bodies that move beautifully and with speed and skill through time and space tell stories that don't need words. We are captivated by the bodies of athletes - there is a universal language going on that transcends our inadequate words.

A real athletes' story

The FrontRunners story is so compelling, partly because it speaks the language of the athlete. The Calgary production was staged in March 2001. We had real athletes play the athletes of the present who enter the stage at the end of the performance.

Kendra Ohama, of the Canadian womens' wheelchair basketball team was one of those athletes. This team has not lost a game since 1991, and won gold in Sydney in 2000. At the dress rehearsal the day of opening night, at the Calgary Centre for the Arts, Kendra brought her gold medal. There was a quiet time when all activity stopped as each actor and runner held the medal. She brought a certain magic to that performance.

Another athlete involved with the play was Clara Hughes. At the time she had just made the national speed-skating team, after having not skated since she was a young teen-ager. She had, however, won two Olympic medals in cycling in Atlanta. Clara became the honourary auntie of the two Cree children - Seekun and Keewatin - who represented the athletes of the future in the play. Before long she had taken them speed-skating, given them cycling jerseys, and even attended Seekun's birthday party when she turned eight.

Clara kept in touch with the kids and visited them in their home in LaRonge, Saskatchewan, which is hundreds of kilometres north and east of Calgary. At the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, the kids e-mailed her the word, Igwa. It means Now in Cree. She wrote it on her hand before her race. Clara Hughes became the first Canadian and the fourth athlete in the history of the Games to win medals in both winter and summer Olympics, as she took the bronze in the 5,000.

She is also, literally, fast friends with the two kids, who count her as their closest pal. For me, this is the magic of sport and the arts, especially when the two mix. Great barriers can be crossed.

There is much to look at in this story that has to do with how cultures have certain universal truths while at the same time are very different. For instance, the English language and other languages from which it was derived, is inadequate to describe the traditional lives of Aboriginal people in North America.

In both Ojibway and Cree, approximately 80% of the words are verbs. These are languages that describe movement, that describe a life that has cycles that are inextricably tied to nature and the seasons. Unlike European based languages, these languages don't have room for a lot of materialism. What good would carting a lot of material goods around do for people who follow the caribou or the buffalo?

As I have said earlier, writing this story has taught me a great deal about the first cultures of Canada, and difficult truths in Canadian history. Without question this has been a painful and wonderful journey for me as a writer. The Calgary performance of the play was quite successful, but I saw it as a work in progress. We really didn't have time to workshop the play properly, and I wanted to re-write it.

In December of 2001, I spoke with the Ministry of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs in Winnipeg, Manitoba. They had contributed financially to the Calgary production, but I wanted them to be more involved in a Winnipeg production as this city was hosting the 2002 North American Indigenous Games. Over 6,000 athletes and an equal amount of cultural performers were to gather in Winnipeg in the summer to celebrate ten days of sport and culture.

The Ministry was very supportive of a Winnipeg production and in February 2002, I moved to Winnipeg to re-write the play, and plan the production. Again, we needed to raise approximately $40,000, which is always difficult, but thanks to the very generous provincial support of the Ministry of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs and the federal support of Canadian Heritage, which is responsible for both sport and culture, we were able to stage the play once more.

In both Calgary and Winnipeg we were also able to host the original runners, who led a wonderful question and answer period after each performance. While I spent a great deal of time and energy on the play, I must say the real runners upstaged it. They were witty, intelligent, and excellent hosts to the audience.

Both the Premier of the province of Manitoba, Gary Doer, and the Minister of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs, Eric Robinson, believe in the FrontRunners story. Together they have arranged for the funding of a video interview of three of the FrontRunners, as well as a written package to accompany it. They too believe FrontRunners needs to be made into a feature film, and it is my pleasure to be able to show you just a small slice of the some of people who have made this story happen.