Film screening marks 50th anniversary of Indigenous FrontRunners

FrontRunners youth

On the evening of Wednesday, July 19 at the Nat Taylor Cinema located on York University’s Keele campus, the 50th anniversary of a pivotal sporting event will be re-visited in the film Nigaanibatowaad: FrontRunners (2007). The event is sponsored by the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS) at York University. It’s a must-see film for anyone who has thought about what truth and reconciliation could mean.

“The Faculty is honored to be a part of this event. It is through the work of many activists over thousands of years that we have today found the courage to confront our collective histories as a country,” said Professor Ananya Mukherjee-Reed, dean of LA&PS. “The film is one such contribution to that process and speaks poignantly to the question of justice which is the core concern that shapes the Faculty’s work.”

An archival image of the original FrontRunners

In 1967, 10 Indigenous teenage boys, all of whom were accomplished long-distance runners, were chosen to run with the Pan Am Games torch from St. Paul, Minnesota to the game’s stadium in Winnipeg, Manitoba, a distance they accomplished in one week. But when they arrived, the torch was taken from them and given to a white runner. They were not invited in to watch the ceremonies. Instead, they were sent away. All were residential school students.

In 1999, Winnipeg again hosted the games and organizers tracked down the original runners, apologized and 32-years later they finished the journey and delivered the torch. Nigaanibatowaad: FrontRunners is their story, and four of the original runners, Patrick Bruyere, William Merasty, Charlie Nelson and Bill Chippeway, will be at the screening to celebrate the anniversary of their run, and meet the thousands of young athletes attending the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) at York University. The group says they are committed to passing the fire within to another generation of frontrunners. That fire includes dealing with colonialism and the long shadow it casts.

A scene from the film Nigaanibatowaad: FrontRunners

For some, healing from the abuse endured as children has taken years, and is never really over. For many, the journey of staying strong includes not losing their language. In residential schools, warning signals and signs were used if a person in authority was approaching at school. Language is a cornerstone of culture which is why Mishomis (Grandfather), who watches the film’s main character Thomas as he revisits his past, speaks Ojibway.

Running is another cornerstone. The film’s title, Nigaanibatowaad, alludes to the person who runs in front of the dogsled on the trap line, a job for which the runners from Northern Manitoba were responsible. There is no word for “athlete” in Ojibway. Running was almost like breathing in that it was the main form of transportation. It was also one way the runners survived residential school, allowing them to escape its confines as often as possible by travelling if they made the track team, and if they were successful at competitions, receive more food.

Of the 10 original runners, eight were still alive in 1999. Two had tragic deaths, and, like many Indigenous people, the surviving runners continue to deal with enormous losses in family and community. Children who attended residential schools were more likely to die than were Canadian soldiers in the Second World War. The generations afterward live in a shadow of that experience, something the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry was initiated to address.

But much has changed since 1967: Indigenous athletes from the Mexican border to above the Arctic Circle will be competing at York. Thousands of cultural performers will accompany them. This promise of a strong, vibrant generation of frontrunners gives the surviving runners great hope. All four will speak after the film. As Mishomis advises: “The past should never be forgotten. But keep your eyes up. Look ahead.”

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