Chief Willie Littlechild: ‘Sport has the power to enact change’

Chief Willie Littlechild reflects on how sport helps heal trauma in an interview with The Wren’s Kyra Grubb.
A person poses for the camera in a pool with goggles on, smiling.
Chief Willie Littlechild dedicated his Canada 55+ Games swim to residential “school” students. Photo by Peter Olsen

Chief Willie Littlechild, of Membertou Nation, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, is a residential “school” survivor and lawyer who has spent his life working to advance Indigenous rights and treaties. As a young man, Littlechild found solace in a variety of sports, including swimming, hockey, football and baseball. Littlechild has won numerous awards, including multiple medals at the Canada 55+ Games. He worked to create the North American Indigenous Games in 1990 and the World Indigenous Nations Games in 2015.

Editor’s note: The following statements have been edited for length and clarity.

I was a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that called for sports events to pay tribute to Indigenous athletes and survivors in local areas where multi-sport games are held, such as the Olympics or Commonwealth Games.

I contacted Kúkpi7 Rosanne Casimir to discuss the Canada 55+ Games being held in Kamloops and the possibility of paying tribute.

As you know, 215 missing children and unmarked graves were recently discovered in Kamloops, and because most professional sporting groups have taken up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call to action, I just felt it would be a fantastic opportunity for the Canada 55+ Games to also pay tribute to former residential school students.

I myself am a former residential school student. I attended three different residential schools. I’m very honoured to still be alive. I’m a member of 10 sports halls of fame. I am fortunate to have been able to compete in the Canada 55+ Games. 

Sport allows survivors to heal from the traumas we suffered as children. Because sport had such an important, positive role for us as students within the residential school era, it seemed a natural convergence of opportunities. I thought, “Let’s do this for the children.” And we did.

After I spoke with Kúkpi7 Casimir and got her permission, she shared she thought it was a good idea to swim a race during the Canada 55+ Games in honour of the missing children and unmarked graves. 

We dedicated two lanes that were kept empty and marked by orange T-shirts. There, we said in our tradition that the spirit of the children would be swimming. The sport of swimming converged with a very positive message to Canada in a special honouring ceremony. That’s what reconciliation is about.

A person in an orange shirt and headdress makes a speech surrounded by people beside an indoor pool.
Chief Willie Littlechild makes a speech before dedicating his swim in the Canada 55+ Games to residential “school” students on Aug. 25. Photo by Peter Olsen

Sport has the power to enact change. Nelson Mandela once said that sport has the power to change the world, the power to bring groups and communities and people together. Sport has the power of speaking to youth in a language that they can understand. 

It was absolutely very emotional and amazing that the Canada 55+ Games paid tribute to the Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc and also the missing children. 

It’s hard to capture, in a sense of words, the gratitude I had for us to be able to do that.

— Chief Willie Littlechild, as told to Kyra Grubb

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