Written by William Chippeway, Indigenous Community Liaison Officer, Edmonton Parole
In the summer of 1967, Winnipeg, Manitoba was host to the Pan American games - the largest event to ever take place in the city of Winnipeg. In the lead up to the opening ceremonies, the Pan Am torch had to make its way from St. Paul, Minnesota to Winnipeg. As part of the torch run, organizers selected ten Indigenous runners to carry the flame on its final leg. All runners but one were selected from residential schools in Manitoba. The formal start of the run began on July 17, 1967, after the torch was lit on the steps of the Minnesota capital. Over five days, covering 500 miles and chaperoned by a State Trooper, the runners followed an old route used by Indigenous people to carry mail from the US to Canada.
The selected runners, which included me, were chosen for our running prowess (a skill we credit as being part of our heritage, but also conditioned by a life eked out on the land.) As runners, we were able to capture the rhythm of the land, we were able to feel the heartbeat of the earth. That was what gave us strength and endurance. The land was lifting us as we were running and we could feel it. We were able to hear the voices of our Ancestors encouraging us.
The plan for the torch run, as understood by us, was for us to run the torch flame into the stadium in Winnipeg, then hand it off to another athlete. As we approached the stadium, the sky quickly darkened and a downpour of rain blanketed the city. Before we could enter the stadium to finish the run, officials stopped us and the torch was handed over to a non-Indigenous athlete who finished the final leg of the run, ascending the steps of the cauldron.
At that time, none of us realized the snub at the end of the run was because we were Indigenous. With the exception of one runner, we were escorted to a nearby restaurant to watch the Opening Ceremonies of the games.
In 1999, three years after the last residential school was closed, Pan Am organizers reached out to me and the other runners, now all in our 50’s. Winnipeg was hosting the games once more. We were asked to lead the torch into the stadium, an attempt by the province and organizers to let us finish the run and right a historical wrong. One of the runners carried the torch into the stadium and handed it to a young Indigenous athlete, transferring the flame to the next generation.
We felt in our own hearts that the Spirit of our ancestors celebrated that we had completed a significant part of the journey.
A play based on our experiences was written by journalist Laura Robinson called “Front Runners”. A documentary was also produced called “Run as One: Journey of the front runners” where seven of the original ten runners reunited to discuss the experience. The name "front runners" is based on a description of the young Indigenous boys who ran ahead of the sled dogs to cut a track while trapping for their survival. It was a job for only the fastest.
For me, testifying at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a residential school survivor dredged up dark memories from my youth. The abuse I experienced at a residential school broke me, I could not do anything, could not tell anyone. When you are being sexually abused, you do not want to tell anyone. I was ashamed of what happened and I was very, very hurt.
I dropped out of high school, became an alcoholic and drug addict. I did not realize what was happening to my life and why I followed the wrong path. I used to cry a lot a while drinking because sad memories returned and tortured my thinking and lifestyle. I remember the times when I was still in the residential school, when running was an escape form the daily torture we experienced at the school.
For us runners, experiences in residential schools are inextricably tied to the dire situation Indigenous youth face today. My experiences run parallel with many survivors of the schools, including the permeating stress and shame that followed me for years. These feelings still exist but I know how to deal with them through my association with Elders. I thank the Creator for Elders.
In 2015, the front runners were again asked to return as special guests to the Pan Am games in Toronto, Ontario. These days I am on a healing journey from past abuse in the residential school system and enjoying my presentations to schools, universities, church groups, libraries, and whoever wants to hear the story of the front runners.
We would like to thank William for sharing his story. You can watch the CBC short documentary Run as One: The journey of the front runners