Arctic Winter Games 2023 open with a rockin' outdoor party at –17 C

Arctic Winter Games 2023 open with a rockin' outdoor party at –17 C

Black night skies spread above brightly lit arches and crowds of spectators on Sunday night as the teams competing in this year's Arctic Winter Games got their official welcome at the opening ceremony.

It was about –17 C Sunday night as athletes from the N.W.T., Nunavut and Yukon gathered outside in Fort McMurray, Alta., with fellow competitors to the sound of deafening cheers and whistles.

Blaring music, dancing lights and rousing speeches kept the energy high all evening, offsetting the winter chill. Just as the evening was winding down, The Halluci Nation took the stage to thunderous applause, ending the opening ceremony with a bang.

Earlier in the evening, the cold temperatures froze up the microphone at least once, but speakers pressed on to express their appreciation for being able to attend.

Evan Mitsui/CBC
Evan Mitsui/CBC

As dignitaries prepared to give speeches, Elder Alice Martin gave a blessing in Cree and English.

"I'm honoured to stand here in front of you, to ask our Creator to bless us, keep us safe, during this week of the Arctic Winter Games," Martin said.

"Good luck to everybody. Hiy hiy!"

Wood Buffalo Mayor Sandy Bowman gave a greeting in Cree and English, thanking Elder Rita Martin for giving him language lessons.

"Welcome to you all," he said. "I wish you nothing but the best for the next week of competition and cultural celebration."

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Sunday's opening ceremony was meant to give people a show, said Nicole Clow, the general manager of the Wood Buffalo Arctic Winter Games Host Society.

Elder Lina Gallup and Olympian Brook Voigt carried in the torch by dogsled to light the cauldron, torch thrust high in the air as they rode in. It's the only time sled dogs will make an appearance this year, as they were left off the slate of sports.

The opening ceremony also featured dancers and singers performing the theme song of the Games, and fireworks.

Evan Mitsui/CBC
Evan Mitsui/CBC

Clow said excitement has been building in the community. Close to 2,000 people have offered to volunteer to help make the Games a success.

"It's a chance to show off, something to celebrate. It's been a while — it's been a lot of hard years, but we've got a lot of community support," she said.

"I think there's just this yearning to get going, because it's been five years."

Evan Mitsui/CBC
Evan Mitsui/CBC

Kyra McDonald, who carried the flag for the N.W.T. at Sunday's opening ceremony, told CBC before the event began that she'd be thinking about her family and friends back home in Inuvik.

McDonald joined Haley Hachey of Baker Lake, Nunavut, and Jaymi Hinchey, of Whitehorse, each representing their respective territories. Though Hachey and Hinchey's roles were announced in advance, McDonald only learned she would be the N.W.T.'s flag-bearer on Saturday night.

"I had a hard time sleeping last night," she said with a laugh on Sunday.

"I'm beyond excited to have the opportunity to be the flag-bearer ... Words can't really describe how excited I am for it."

'A lot of pride'

Growing up in Inuvik, McDonald learned to skate pretty much as soon as she learned to walk. She started playing minor hockey when she was very young, and now plays university-level hockey at Trinity Western University in British Columbia.

"I have a lot of pride, coming from such a small town and making it as far as I did," McDonald said.

Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada
Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada

The Arctic Winter Games will run all week, with 20 different sports taking place in 13 different venues across the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.

The previous time the Games were held in 2018, only two teams participated — Alaska and the Northwest Territories.

Evan Mitsui/CBC
Evan Mitsui/CBC

John Rodda, the president of the Arctic Winter Games International Committee, said the buzz around the Games is much bigger this year, given that the 2020 Games were cancelled.

"You can feel the excitement as everybody's getting ready," he said.

The decision to bar Russia from attending the Games this year, while unfortunate, hasn't diminished the event, he added.

"The games will go on, they'll be hugely successful. The kids will have fun. It'll be a memorable experience."