Front Runners recall their Games torch incident

The fragrance of burning sweetgrass filled the air of Stedman Lecture Hall at a special reading of FrontRunners, a play written by former York guest lecturer Laura Robinson. The play brings to life the true story of 10 aboriginal boys who were chosen to carry the torch to the 1967 Pan Am Games in Winnipeg. The young athletes ran with it for 800km along an ancient messenger route from St. Paul, Minn., only to pass it off to a non-aboriginal runner when they arrived at the stadium in Winnipeg. More than 30 years later, the play attempts to heal the wounds of that dishonour.

The night, which was organized by the Master’s Office of the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies, began and ended with good food and good spirits Nov. 3. Prior to the performance, the actors and playwright were welcomed to a reception at Michaelangelo’s Restaurant hosted by the Atkinson Faculty. Afterwards, the players went to Stedman Lecture Hall where they were introduced by Professor Gail Vanstone, director of Atkinson’s Canadian Writers in Person series.

Before the reading began, one of the actors led the group in an native smudging ceremony. Using the smoke from a lit bundle of sweetgrass, the good spirits were invited into each performer.

The play focuses on the friendship between two of the young runners as they navigate the abuse of the residential school system and the outside world. Their story is powerfully interwoven with the account of a young aboriginal girl who is horribly scarred by her experience with an abusive principal. Though the play tackles heavy themes and some its scenes are quite disturbing, it is carried off with a sense of humour and hope. This was especially so between the two men playing the runners as they jostled for position on the track and explored the larger world beyond their Manitoba village.

The greatest resonance struck the audience when it was revealed after the play that two of the actors were original Front Runners. It was both moving and fitting that Charlie Nelson played the drums and provided the heartbeat for the dramatic racetrack scene and that Patrick Bruyere who played the Grandfather read all his lines in Ojibway. All of the actors received a long standing ovation from the spectators who were moved by the performance.

Charlie, whose native name is Mizlakwanigizhik, described a ceremony held in Winnipeg in 2002 at which he and the remaining Front Runners were finally allowed to complete their journey into the stadium with the torch. While this was accompanied by a formal apology from the province of Manitoba, there was a more powerful form of healing in the stadium. On that day there were brisk winds whirling through the stadium and he believes that this might have indicated the presence of healing spirits. On this note, the night ended with a reception at Treats, this time hosted by Winters College. There, good spirits and good food intermingled with aboriginals and non-aboriginals alike.

This event was supported by the Grey Bruce Air Bus, The Geoffrey Scott Foundation, Canada Council for the Arts, Centre for Student Community and Leadership Development, the Division of Humanities, Faculty of Arts, the Atkinson School of Arts & Letters and the Office of the Master at Atkinson, McLaughlin and Winters colleges.

For more information on FrontRunners, see the story in the Nov. 1 issue of YFile.

This story was submitted to YFile by Chris Cornish, who recently graduated from the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies with a BA (Honours) in liberal studies. He is currently working on a master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies at York.