By Stephen Hunt
Last Monday night at C Space, a group of Indigenous artists, elders, planners, dancers — and athletes — met with Calgary 2026 to talk about what Indigenous participation in a Calgary Olympic bid might look like.
It was an inspiring meeting, full of stories and personal experiences and expressions of hope for how a 2026 Olympic bid could positively impact not only Treaty 7 communities, but Indigenous nations right across the country.
Many of them had been involved in previous Olympics, or their parents participated at Vancouver, or Calgary in 1988, or played a role in various Canadian delegations trying to win Olympic bids over the years.
There’s little doubt Indigenous communities will play a major role in the cultural component of a 2026 Games, over a variety of platforms, but Monday night, there were a few suggestions as to how that role might be expanded.
“There should be an Indigenous director of the Opening and Closing ceremonies,” said Making Treaty 7 artistic director Justin Manyfingers, a multi-talented choreographer, dancer (including doing Riel at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa), actor and director who just directed the latest production of Making Treaty 7 at the Jubilee in early October.
It turns out as a boy — before Manyfingers trained to become a successful artist — he was a competitive figure skater, until the economics of it derailed his childhood Olympic dream.
Now, as an adult, Manyfingers has a new Olympic dream: directing those Opening and Closing Ceremonies.
“I want to do it!” he said, before adding, with a smile: “Make sure that gets in your blog!”
There’s another area that has lacked Indigenous representation, that some are hoping can change by 2026.
“To be honest, I’m thinking of competing” Rilee ManyBears said, Monday night. “My grandparents always encouraged me to be active.”
Then, ManyBears shared a little more of his amazing and inspiring story.
He’d overcome drugs, alcohol, and heart surgery, to become a distance runner that took him all the way to Brazil, where he won the gold medal at the 2015 World Indigenous Games.
“What’s saved me from a negative lifestyle,” he added, “was athletics.”
ManyBears recounted his story, of being offered a track scholarship, only to learn, after he’d accepted, that the school he was planning to attend cut its track funding, which included his scholarship.
He’s frustrated by that, after having been taught by elders that “education is the modern buffalo” because it provides shelter, food and warmth, but he’s also aware that things are a little more tricky when you’re an aspiring Olympian from Siksika nation.
“Indigenous athletes don’t have access to facilities,” he said.
At the end of the day, though, a runner has got to run.
If he can’t get a scholarship, then ManyBears will move to Kenya, to learn running from the best long distance runners in the world.
And once he’s mastered that, he’s going to find a winter sport to master as well, to be ready for Calgary hosting in 2026.
“What I’ve envisioned (for 2026) is I want a lot of First Nations Olympians,” he said. “We want First Nations athletes at the Games. It doesn’t matter how big your goal is, you have to go after it.”
That — he might have added — goes for cities as well as individuals.
“We have a great opportunity for global change,” he said. “(Hosting) the biggest show on earth!”
Showcasing Indigenous culture, inspiring Indigenous youth
ManyBears’ determination to bring the Games back to Calgary was echoed again and again among the Making Treaty 7 participants, who view hosting the Games as a rare opportunity to share and showcase Indigenous culture to the world.
Elder Vincent Yellow Old Woman, who has travelled the world on behalf of Alberta First Nations and bringing the Games here, spoke for everyone in the room when he evoked some familiar old names.
“We need to keep this conversation going,” he said. “Back in the day, Ralph Klein always connected to the Indigenous community.
“That’s what’s missing (this time),” he added. “We need another Ralph Klein.”
(Earlier, he mentioned the amazing story of Deerfoot, adding that more people need to know that Deerfoot was a person, and not just a freeway.)
He also spoke of the need to include the Indigenous vision for the Games beyond the Blackfoot nation, to include Cree, Mohawk, Metis and other nations.
“Take it to the National Chief’s Conference,” he said. “Get all the First Nations to support it.”
He wanted, he said, to create a Games in 2026 that could serve as an inspiration to First Nations youth right across the country.
“I want that 14-year-old First Nations kid in Northern Quebec watching the Opening Ceremonies, seeing First Nations people who are Olympic athletes,” he said.
“I want him to think, I can do that.
“I want him to see a champion!”