Elite-level sport is an extraordinary driver for positive social change, and that’s something we’ve seen writ large over the last few years: from NFL player Colin Kaepernick taking the knee in 2016 as a protest against racial inequality and oppression, which sparked a conversation that rippled well past the USA’s borders, to WNBA player Brittney Griner actively contributing to a campaign to bolster the right of recognition of transgender and nonbinary people, we’ve seen a number of high-profile athletes take their platform and use it to make a difference in the world.
This week, team Canada has joined their ranks with a visual campaign to recognise Canada’s indigenous communities, helmed by British-based competitor Mike Winter.
The Canadian team anchor has been a vocal advocate for representation and diversity within the sport— as well as promoting awareness of human rights issues outside of it. You can always spot him riding with a pair of Flex-On stirrup irons emblazoned with Black Lives Matter, and this week at the World Championships, he rides with a lapel pin and cross-country shirt honouring Canada’s First Nations and indigenous communities, designed by Kwakwaka’wakw artist Curtis Wilson. It’s part of a push for a unified Canada that sees indigenous peoples enjoy the same rights and representation as their compatriots.
“I think it’s really important that sport is involved in social action and picking the causes that are important,” says Mike. “Our sport is wonderful but we’re not always engaged with diversity and equality issues. The pin I’m wearing represents the role that First Nations play in Canada. It’s important that we recognise Canada’s history of wrongs in the building of the country and how still today, that affect the human rights of those indigenous people. There are opportunities in equality — things like clean drinking water, education, health care. I think those things need to be talked about, and being Canadian, if I can do a small bit to make people aware of then, I hope that helps.”
The Canadian team will head out of the startbox today in cross-country shirts that also feature the First Nations flag, and it can be found in situ in the array of national flags decorating the riders’ area near the start and finish of the course.
Canada’s indigenous communities have long suffered the effects of colonialism: the right to land is still something that’s being fought for in the Supreme Court, and the Indian Act, brought in as an assimilation tactic in 1876, has long served to segregate indigenous communities to residential schools, reserves, and separate healthcare systems. Until 1950, indigenous people’s access to secondary education was restricted.
This was brought into sharp focus last spring, when the remains of 215 children were found at the disused site of a former school in British Columbia. The bodies were those of indigenous children, some as young as three years old, and since then, more than 1,300 further graves have been discovered at these residential schools, prompting a closer look at Canada’s troubling past.
More than 150,000 children were sent through the residential school system, which relied on an almost total extermination of culture in order to ‘assimilate’ these children to the new colonial way of life. They were forced to abandon their native languages, had their heads shaved, were often referred to in dehumanising terms — most commonly, as ‘savages’ — and removed from their families and communities. More and more evidence of widespread physical and sexual abuse has been uncovered — and most horrifyingly, the last of these 139 schools only closed in 1998, and the system was widely supported through the 20th century. As Canada’s first prime minister described it, the aim was to “sever children from the tribe” and “civilize” them — and the idea was borrowed, in large part, from a similar initiative in the USA. The Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, which was founded in 1879, had a horrifying school motto: “kill the Indian, save the man.”
In Canada, this often translated to killing the Indian within the child. Many of these young children would be referred to simply as a number throughout their tenure at the schools — a practice that was also used, famously, to identify people imprisoned in concentration camps in World War Two. Children died in droves as a result of physical and sexual abuse, poor sanitation, malnutrition, or after trying to escape, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up in 2008 by the Canadian government and helmed by Chief Wilton Littlechild, himself a survivor of the residential school system, referred to it as a cultural genocide.
While the atrocities of the residential school system have now become common knowledge, systemic racism and oppression against indigenous and First Nations communities still exists in Canada, and the team’s efforts this week to recognise Canada’s troubled past are a landmark moment in our sport, which has so often stayed mum on human rights issues.
Team Canada, we salute you.