Whether it’s pulling your weight across a set of monkey bars, taking a series of flying leaps over hurdles, or climbing a wall made of ropes – one thing is certain: the Ancestor’s Challenge is guaranteed to get your children moving.
The newly-launched initiative by the First Nations Education Council (FNEC) is intended to offer First Nations youth an opportunity to take part in sporting activities within the safety of their own community.
Described as a cross between the course seen on American Ninja Warrior and the infamous Spartan Race, the obstacle course is set up over 400 metres and includes a total of 12 obstacles. With everything from rock climbing walls, to cargo nets and pull-up rings, the vivid orange and black-themed apparatus can transform any playground into a professional adventure park.
Following the cancellation of the annual FNEC Inter-School Games last year as a result of the pandemic, organizers had to think about innovative ways to implement a competitive event, all the while avoiding in-person competition.
After the community of Wendake kicked-off the Ancestor’s Challenge competition, Kanesatake was close behind them, as the second community to partake on May 20 and 21.
“For many teachers, it was the first time where they had all their students gathered since last March,” explained Andrea Kanerahtakwas Nelson, Special Education teacher at Rotiwennakehte/Aronhiatekha School. “It was nice to have all the kids – even the high school ones – excited about something when it’s been so long.”
The dedicated educator expressed that the execution of this event was no easy feat. From requesting approval from the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake and the school principal, to ensuring all local and FNEC safety guidelines were implemented, this event required layers of coordination which Nelson was instrumental in bringing about.
“I went through a couple obstacles to make it happen, but it was all worth it,” she said, adding that her own three kids were overjoyed with having participated.
Behind the work that took place at the community level, was also a multitude of endeavours led by the FNEC, which regroups eight First Nations and 22 member communities across the province. As the Ancestor’s Challenge coordinator David Gill explained, the process began with a first trip back to the drawing board.
“The youth already lost the competition last year, so in 2021 instead of cancelling again, we decided to build a totally new concept that could be deployed quickly,” said Gill, referring to the entirely mobile course. “The Ancestor’s Challenge gets 100 percent of the youth, from kindergarten to grade 11, to be involved.”
Growing up in the Innu community of Mashteuiatsh, Gill expressed that he himself spent his childhood eagerly awaiting the inter-communities sporting events that took place throughout the summer.
“As an Indigenous youth living in a community, this was a very important thing for me to look forward to,” he said. “The youth so badly need these types of events.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, restrictions on organized sports have impacted school-aged children who have been deprived from the activities that ordinarily allow them to stay active and socialize with their peers.
“When I was thinking about this concept, I thought about my own grandparents who were hunters that lived off of the land,” said the coordinator. “The challenge is in a way an ultimatum that our ancestors are giving us – it’s a chance to prove to them that we can set a difficult objective for ourselves and succeed.”
The course was created with the intention of offering an original playground for those aged under 10 to enjoy, while also serving as a competitive terrain for older youth who are recording their timing.
“My son is very competitive, so it was really nice having him participate in this type of event where he can enjoy himself,” said Valerie Bonspille, the mother of 15-year-old RJ Cross.
The self-described “arena mother” said she was relieved to have a safe activity for her son to enrol in after over a year of hockey and other sports being largely prohibited.
“The way they handled the event with separating grades in class bubbles showed that they really took our kids’ health into consideration,” said Bonspille.
In addition to the compulsory class bubble system in place, FNEC applied restrictions on spectators in order to avoid gatherings of any sort. As such, parents were unable to attend the challenge.
As a member of the Kanesatake Emergency Response Unit, Christine Meilleur was one of the community members tasked with ensuring that health directives were properly enforced throughout the two-day event.
While she was on the ground during the competition, Meilleure admitted that she found it difficult not to simply be able to be there as a parent cheering on her daughter.
“This past year has been rough for her, especially with all of the restrictions from COVID-19 and her being an only child in the house,” said the mother, adding that her daughter Bryanna has mostly been attending school online this year. “When I decided to allow her to participate, she was really excited about it.”
In more ways than one, Meilleur expressed how fruitful the event was for the 10-year-old. “It gave her something to look forward to and it also brought back a sense of normalcy, even if it was only for a short amount of time,” she said.
Up to date, three additional communities are registered to compete, including Kahnawake, which will be hosting FNEC from June 14 to 17.
So long as the pandemic persists, Bonspille expressed the importance that events such as the Ancestor’s Challenge can play in helping youth rekindle their sporting flame.
“As adults, we feel the stress and anxiety of being limited to what we can do because we are so used to just being free,” she pointed out. “We don’t tend to realize that the kids feel the same – they can’t be with their friends or be doing their sports, so this challenge is just one thing they can be doing right now that is good for their mindset.”
Laurence Brisson Dubreuil, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door