By Sam Laskaris
THUNDER BAY, Ont.
The Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) will once again be running its Winter Sports Festival.
The event, for NAN youth ages 11 to 21, will run Feb. 17 to Feb. 19 in Thunder Bay. Participants from the 49 First Nations in northern Ontario that comprise NAN are invited to take part in a number of sporting activities during the three-day festival.
NAN staged its inaugural Winter Sports Festival in 2015. That event was also held in Thunder Bay, where NAN’s administrative head office is located.
The original plan was to stage an annual winter festival. But one was not held in 2016, in part because NAN also held a summer sports festival in Thunder Bay last June.
Though NAN officials have invited youth from all of its First Nations to take part, they realize it is difficult for many to attend. That’s because NAN covers a substantial geographic area in the province, including 34 fly-in communities, making travel not only tricky, but also expensive.
The 2015 winter festival attracted 120 competitors. Officials are expecting somewhat more this year.
“We’re aiming for 150 to 200 participants,” said Bobby Narcisse, who is NAN’s manager for recreation programs. Due to travel and financial restrictions, Narcisse said organizers are not anticipating representation from all of NAN’s First Nations.
“We’re thinking maybe half of them (might have some representatives),” he said.
Narcisse said organizers are working closely with officials from Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in Thunder Bay in order to get out as many of their students to the festival.
This school, which opened in 2000, is for Aboriginal students from northwestern Ontario. Many youth from fly-in communities attend the high school.
“Many of those students are our target now,” Narcisse said.
Narcisse would like to see the festival held annually from now on.
“The plan is to have them yearly,” he said. “But we’re also trying to encourage the communities to have more strategic sporting events themselves.”
Those that do attend the festival will have the opportunity to try out various activities, some of which they might be attempting for the first time.
Instead of a competitive atmosphere, the festival will feature clinics for various sports.
The opening day will include ultimate Frisbee and broomball segments. Participants will also play various board games, have an open mic session as well as a pizza and movie night.
The following day will include skiing and snowshoeing clinics as well as lacrosse and rugby sessions. The final day will feature a volleyball tournament and various relay style events.
Derek Fox, one of NAN’s three deputy grand chiefs, is a big booster of the festival. He realizes the importance of having youth take part.
“It’s a chance for them to do something physical and to get out of their communities,” he said. “They get to meet new people and most importantly have fun.”
Fox attended the 2015 festival. And he plans to be there once again, even though his own birthday will be during this year’s event.
Fox, 35, said sports can play a huge part in one’s life, much like it did for him.
“Both of my parents went to residential schools,” he said. “We were the second generation of residential school survivors. Growing up, I had a rough upbringing. But the things that kept me going were school and sports.”
Fox ended up becoming a proficient hockey player. When he was 16, the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds made him their first pick in the Ontario Hockey League’s Priority Selections draft. He ended up playing three seasons, from 1998 through 2001, with the Greyhounds.
Fox, who played defence, appeared in 160 regular season and playoff contests with the Greyhounds during his junior career.
Fox then went on and earned a Political Science and Economics degree from the University of Manitoba. He later earned a Law degree from the university. He’s also been a NAN deputy grand chief since 2015.
Fox is fully aware various NAN communities still have their share of social issues. Several First Nations have experienced recent youth suicides. He’s hoping an event like the winter festival can shed some positive lights.
“It can create new friendships but it can also give them hope,” said Fox, who is from the Bearskin Lake First Nation. “It introduces them to new things and they might try to get that sport going in their own community.”
Narcisse would also like to see that be the case.
“It’s acting like a stepping stone for our communities to get the word out on active living,” Narcisse, who is also NAN’s director of social services and child welfare said of the festival.