Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
A pair of former elite athletes were among the panelists gathered at an event in Calgary last week to discuss the importance of Indigenous athletes and builders.
Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame and the Calgary Public Library hosted their second annual celebration of National Indigenous Peoples Day on June 21. The day included a panel discussion focused on truth and reconciliation in sport, entitled “Indigenous Ways of Knowing and Being.”
Among the featured panelists were Alwyn Morris, a Mohawk sprint kayaker from Kahnawake in Quebec, who won gold and bronze medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and basketball player Michael Linklater from Thunderchild First Nation in Saskatchewan, who won a national university title as well as a championship in Canada’s pro basketball circuit.
The panel discussion was held in person at the Patricia A. Whelan Performance Hall, located in the Calgary Public Library, and also livestreamed for those who chose to tune in online.
Morris, who spent 13 years on the Canadian national canoe team, went on to become one of the founders of the Aboriginal Sport Circle (ASC) in 1995. This association is the governing body for Indigenous athletics in Canada.
Morris said the fact he was raised by his grandparents set him in the proper direction in his life.
“I say that not because they were disciplinarians that had me on a short leash,” Morris said. “It was more about them being able to communicate with me and teach me some morality and teach me about what I needed to do in order to be successful. I lived with those words of encouragement and direction.”
Morris said people started to listen and take notice of him because he was an Olympic champion. As a result, he was able to facilitate meetings that led to the creation of the (ASC).
“I’m pleased I was able to do that and have the support of many, many people around me to make some changes and get into the doors that were very shut at the time,” he said. Morris remains the only Indigenous athlete to capture a gold medal for Canada at the Summer Olympics.
“I was welcomed from the prime minister’s office to the ministers’ sports offices, because I had won the Olympics.”
Morris was pleased he was able to get the attention of decision makers.
“That was the sort of the steppingstone from my perspective because Indigenous people played such a small role within mainstream sport at the time that it was almost non-existent,” he added.
As for Linklater, he was raised by his grandparents and his great aunt and her late husband, who he considers his parents. He never knew his biological father and his mother, who was part of the Sixties Scoop, continues to battle with alcoholism today.
“They understood the importance of giving back to their culture, which my late father used to say was a traditional and inherent right for us to practice our way of life,” Linklater said of his upbringing. “I was so fortunate and blessed to be brought up, from before I could walk or talk, going into ceremony. So, for me, it wasn’t what sport did for me and culture, it’s what I was able to do carrying my culture into sport.”
While playing basketball, Linklater was often the only Indigenous member of his teams.
“I was breaking down the stereotypes,” he said. “In Saskatoon, which is where I live and where I was grew up since I was 10 years old, I grew up hearing the term ‘All Indians are drunks’. For me it was difficult because I couldn’t defend myself because both of my biological grandparents died of alcoholism. My mother, to this day, still suffers from alcoholism and all of my family who I was aware of had their bouts with addictions.”
Linklater was determined not to follow a similar path.
“When I was in Grade 6, I made the decision to abstain from drugs and alcohol because I wanted to one day represent Canada at the highest levels of playing this sport I love,” he said. “To this day, I’m 40 years old, and not once have I tasted a drop of alcohol or experimented with any type of drug. What’s really interesting about that is I’m first generation sober in my family.”
Linklater said he was inspired by his grandparents, who were doing the work of reconciliation before it was even talked about.
“A lot of the work they did was helping people find their cultural identity,” he said. “When you actually think about it, the fact that we get to practice our ceremony and culture today is not only a blessing, it’s a bit of a miracle because, remember, those ceremonies were outlawed.”
Linklater was keen to do his part while playing basketball.
“Being in those locker rooms I’d seen it as an opportunity to help educate my friends,” he said. “Because me, growing up hearing what I heard, it was the same things my friends were hearing. So, when I had those opportunities to share with them, I knew they would be in some conversations and rooms that I wasn’t going to be in where they could help to advocate on behalf of us.”
Linklater led the University of Saskatchewan Huskies to a national university title in 2010. And he was a member of the Saskatchewan Rattlers, which captured the pro Canadian Elite Basketball League championship in 2019.
Last week’s panel also included Alayiah Wolf Child, Bob Rooney, Rhonda Rudnitski and Trevor Haynes.
Wolf Child is the Calgary Stampede’s First Nation Princess for 2023. Rooney is the chair of the Board of Governors for Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, as well as the executive vice-president and chief legal officer for Enbridge.
Rudnitski is the vice-president for environment, social and governance for SECURE Energy. And Haynes is the president, CEO and co-founder of the Black Diamond Group.
The panel was moderated by Paul Karchut, a journalist with CBC Calgary.
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.