In 1967, 10 Natives from Manitoba carried a torch from St. Paul, Minnesota to Winnipeg for the Pan Am Games. Over 500 miles they ran, only to be turned away at the gate, not allowed access into the stadium. Instead, they handed the torch to a white runner and watched the ceremony on TV in a nearby pancake house. 32 years later, they received an official apology and an invitation to carry the torch into the 1999 games' opening ceremony.
That story is the subject of the play, Frontrunners, written by U of C writer-in-residence Laura Robinson. While the main action of the play takes place in 1967 and 1999, "it's a story a lot older than 32 years," Robinson says, making reference to Canada's long history of racism.
Frontrunners centres around the lives of the runners and shows their harsh childhood and the negative impact of residential schools.
They were "worse than prison," says Bill Chippeway, one of the original runners, who makes an appearance at the end of the show.
"[I wanted] to bring the issue [racism] forward; to make people aware that we're all in this together," adds Robinson.
In other words, Robinson feels racism in this country is not over and we must work together to put it to an end. She feels this play is a step in the right direction towards reconciling these "frontrunners" and other Natives like them.
Frontrunners were the people who broke the trail for dog sleds by running in snowshoes. This is why the Ojibwa, and particularly these boys, were so good at running. It's not that they were trained athletes; in fact there is no Ojibway word for athlete. Running was just a way of life.
Considering that fact, Robinson hopes future Olympics will have more than one Canadian-born Aboriginal--the number of Natives on Team Canada in Sydney. It's not that they can't run.
According to Robinson, the reason we don't see many Native athletes is "mainly economic."
"Most Aboriginal families live below the poverty line, and it's very expensive to be an athlete these days."
Frontrunners asks us to recognize that there is a problem so we can do something about it. And maybe, eventually, standing on the same podium as Mark Tewksbury, Donovan Bailey and Sebastien Lareau, will see names like Bill Chippeway, Ivan Deerfoot, or Louis Buffalo.
Frontrunners runs at the Engineered Air Theatre March 18 and in the Boris Roubakine Hall March 20.