Starting with aaniin, or “hello” in Ojibway, John Somosi welcomed hundreds of Grade 5 and 6 students from local Catholic schools to the ninth annual Northern Spirit Games.
Somosi, a Métis who lives near Hanover, Ontario, was invited to speak and sing at the opening of the Aboriginal winter sports day, hosted Feb. 20 at St. Patrick Catholic Secondary.
“Kids have the two most important jobs in the tribe,” Somosi told the crowd.
First, he said, kids have to play. As they do, Somosi said kids do their second job – reminding older people like himself of all the joy in living.
If anyone needed a reminder, they got it at the Spirit Games, where kids competed in ten First Nations, Métis, and Inuit-inspired events that included everything from snowshoeing to spear throws, rope games to a “seal crawl” where kids slid on their bellies to pile of big rubber fish.
Now retired, Brian Armstrong returned to run the games that he helped start back in 2002.
In that first year, Grade 6 students in Toronto had a video chat with their peers in Iqaluit, Nunavut.
While they were talking, Armstrong said a recess bell went off in Toronto, and all the students there started to clap.
“The kids up North asked, ‘Why are you guys clapping?’” he said, and the Toronto students replied that it was because they didn’t have to go outside that day on account of the -10°C cold.
That got the Iqaluit students letting out cheers of their own.
“Oh, we have to go outside until it’s -30°C!” they said.
Armstrong said more laughs came when the Iqaluit students were about their favourite sport – did they prefer dog sledding, or building igloos?
“The kids just about peed themselves,” Armstrong said.
“We play basketball!” they replied.
Hosted over five days, the Northern Spirit Games have grown to involve some 1,500 elementary students in Toronto.
Besides a chance to try some new sports, the Games give students a fun way to learn about Aboriginal cultures.
Somosi was among the many teachers, parents, and St. Patrick’s high school students cheering the students on in the school gym and out in the snow. He also offered to answer any questions they had about Métis life.
Until last year, Catholic students began learning about Aboriginal history beginning in Grade 6, said Vincent Citriniti, coordinator of the Toronto Catholic board’s First Nations, Métis, and Inuit program, but such lessons are now integrated through all Grade 1 to 12 classes, from science to English.
As students ran to their first events, Somosi explained why he kicked off his talk by asking students to do the familiar mouth-slapping “war cry” seen in old Hollywood films, then surprised them with the real thing – a single, high-pitched yell that sounds way scarier than the “buh-buh-buh” of Hollywood movies.
“That gets reinforced all the time, all over the place,” Somosi said.
“So that’s part of my workshop, to break down those barriers and that misunderstanding.”
The mid-February Games are a great time for sharing traditions, he said, since it’s when Aboriginal children would traditionally stay inside, and hear old stories for the first time.
“Winter is the time of stories,” Somosi said. “That’s when we had time to relax.”