Treaty 6 Grand Chief, an award-winning athlete, wants Olympic aspirations to give Indigenous youth hope

Treaty 6 Grand Chief, an award-winning athlete, wants Olympic aspirations to give Indigenous youth hope

A prominent Alberta Indigenous leader says one day he'd like to see an Indigenous team at the Olympic Games. 

"I think it's very important to encourage our children and youth to set higher goals in terms of lifestyle choices, and certainly the Olympics, as an ideal, is a worthy goal for all of us that are interested in sport," Treaty 6 Grand Chief Willie Littlechild told The Homestretch on Thursday.

Littlechild recently returned from the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic Games, where he wanted to show support for a Calgary bid for the 2026 Winter Games and encourage more Indigenous youth to work toward high-level competition.

Littlechild was the first Indigenous torchbearer and ambassador at the Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver. He's also won more than 70 provincial, regional, national and international swimming championships and was one of the founders of the Alberta, North American and World Indigenous Games.

He also excelled out of the sports field, becoming the first Indigenous Albertan to obtain a law degree and later serving as an MP. 

Littlechild spent 14 years of his life in the residential school system, and to this day, he looks forward to talking with and engaging young people.

But a conversation with a group of Grade 8 students, where some said they were just waiting to die, stuck in his mind.

"That's not a hopeful statement to come from children in a Grade 8 class," Littlechild said.

"We have to find ways where they can be motivated to choose life over suicide or a gang lifestyle."

And Littlechild believes sports and having high-profile Indigenous athletes in the spotlight can be that motivation.

"For me, it saved my life," he said.

"Coming from the residential school era, where I was abused as a child, I found a way out, running away from the abuse, and that was to run toward sports.

"In sport you have to practice a lot. In school you have to study a lot. You take that same positive discipline attitude to reach your own goals."

A brighter spotlight 

Four Indigenous athletes competed for Team Canada in Pyeongchang, Littlechild said. 

But, he said he'd like to see the athletes given a more prominent spotlight.

"When you see the opening ceremonies and the teams march in there are only one or two athletes behind the flag for some countries. So to signal, or highlight in a way, our Indigenous athletes, they could march in behind a flagstaff," he said.

Littlechild gave the example of an Australian athlete who ran her victory lap in the Commonwealth Games with both an Australian and Aboriginal flag.

"Firstly, she got a standing ovation. Second, it unified the country."

Wanted to give back

Littlechild said sports are a wonderful way to give the next generation more positive options.

"What sport did for me in my own life, I wanted to give it back to students on the reserves or in our Indigenous communities. Look, there are different ways and different choices we can make in life. For me, it was sports, maybe for others it's something else. It has meant a whole lot."

And he's returning to South Korea for the Paralympic Games to keep the momentum going.

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With files from The Homestretch.