The role of physical activity and sport in reconciliation: A conversation with Wilton Littlechild

Professor Gretchen Kerr, dean of KPE, and Wilton Littlechild, athlete, human rights lawyer and TRC commissioner, recently sat down to discuss the role of sport and physical activity in reconciliation (photo by Katia Taylor)
Professor Gretchen Kerr, dean of KPE, and Wilton Littlechild, athlete, human rights lawyer and TRC commissioner, recently sat down to discuss the role of sport and physical activity in reconciliation (photo by Katia Taylor)

Wilton Littlechild was only six years old when he was taken away from his grandparents’ loving care in the Ermineskin Cree reservation at Maskwacîs, Alberta, becoming one of more than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children in Canada forced into residential schools between 1867 and 1998. 

At the time, Littlechild could only speak Cree, but English would become the only language he was allowed to speak for the next 14 years that he spent in the residential school system, a network of boarding schools for Indigenous children funded by the Canadian government's Department of Indian Affairs and administered by Christian churches, designed to isolate Indigenous children from the influence of their own culture and religion in order to assimilate them into the dominant Canadian culture. 

“The residential school policy was a direct assault on the Indigenous families, because children were separated from their parents, and it was a direct assault on our culture, because we weren’t allowed to speak our language,” said Littlechild at a recent event hosted by the University of Toronto Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KPE). “The policy was to kill the Indian in the child.

“If you spoke your language or manifested your culture in any way, you were to be punished. Many times, I was beaten across the back with a hockey stick.”

To run away from the abuse, he started running, literally, around the school compound, some 10 kilometres in radius, every night. 

“I didn’t know why I was doing it and often times I’d break down and cry, but after I finished the run, I would feel better,” said Littlechild, who served as commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), established following The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement in 2007, the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history, which called for the establishment of TRC to facilitate reconciliation among former residential school students, their families, their communities and all Canadians. 

Skating was another source of relief from the abuse. Friday nights were movie nights, so as soon as the lights went out, he would get his skates, sneak out and skate until the movie was over. 

“Sport became my escape and my salvation,” said Littlechild, who went on to become a successful athlete, politician and human rights lawyer. Speaking with Professor Gretchen Kerr, dean of KPE, last week, Littlechild shared his views on the role of sport and physical activity in reconciliation. 

“My love of sport initially came from wanting to run away from the abuse, but then it gave me a way out, it gave me an opportunity to go to university and play, to compete and travel the world,” he said.

Littlechild attended the University of Alberta, earning a bachelor’s degree in physical education in 1967, followed by a master’s degree in 1975. While studying at U of A, he was on the Golden Bears hockey and swim teams, and worked as student manager of the university’s football and basketball teams. He also founded and coached the first all-Indigenous junior hockey team in Alberta and organized referee and coaching clinics across the province. In 1967 and 1974, he received the Tom Longboat award, which recognizes the most outstanding Indigineous athletes and their contributions to sport in Canada.

Kerr was interested to know how his background in physical education influenced his role as TRC commissioner.

“It had a tremendous influence,” said Littlechild, who recalled looking through old residential school photographs and noticing the only children smiling were the ones on hockey team pictures.

“Finding that balance between looking after your physical health and your mental health, and being proud of who you are culturally, provides a wholesome foundation for life,” said Littlechild, who also emphasized the important role of spirituality. 

Littlechild has worked for over four decades with the United Nations to advocate for Indigenous sport and the global Indigenous rights movement. In 1976, he became the first Treaty First Nation person from Alberta to become a lawyer and be elected a Member of Parliament in Canada in 1988. 

In 1990, he created the North American Indigenous Games and in 2015, the World Indigenous Nations Games. In 2016, he was named Grand Chief of the Confederacy of Treaty Six Nations. Through it all, he continued to promote sport as an important component of reconciliation and community building. 

In fact, he believes a shared love of sport and a common acquaintance from the sport world were in part to credit for binging Pope Francis to Canada to apologize to the Indigenous people, which was one of the calls to action set by TRC.

“As commissioners on the Truth and Reconciliation commission, we heard more than seven thousand survivor testimonies and one thing we kept hearing over and over again was that they wanted an apology from the faith groups that ran the residential schools,” said Littlechild. The Catholic church was still holding back on apologizing.

As it happened, Littlechild was invited by Canada’s Governor General to attend Pope Francis’ first mass. While he was listening to the Pope’s homily, he thought to himself that this would be the pope to apologize after several previous attempts at getting the leaders of the Catholic church to do it had failed.

“He was talking about walking on mother earth gently, taking care of the animals who feed us ... it was like listening to one of our elders talking about respect - of ourselves and one another,” said Littlechild.

When they met afterwards, Littlechild gifted Francis a vest and invited him to come to Canada to apologize, but didn't get a reply. The second time they met, Littlechild had a message for Pope Francis from Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, with whom he had a meeting earlier. 

“Bach told me, ‘Say hi to Pope Francis, we’re buddies, you know, and tell him I support you,’” said Littlechild. “I did, and there was a big smile on his face. We stayed for four hours engrossed in a conversation about the impact of residential schools and as we were leaving, he said, ‘Goodbye, I’ll see you in Canada.’” 

It was Littlechild’s birthday that day and this was the best birthday gift he had ever gotten, all the more significant because birthday celebrations weren’t permitted in residential schools. 

In 2022, Pope Francis began his "penitential pilgrimage" at Maskwacis, Alta., the very location from which Littlechild was taken away as a six-year-old child. 

CBC News reported Francis apologized for members of the Catholic Church who co-operated with Canada's “devastating policy of Indigenous residential schools and begged forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples." 

“When I spoke to him privately, I told him I forgive him, because where harm has been done, an apology is warranted, but when you get an apology, you have to have an opportunity to forgive,” said Littlechild, who acknowledged many still haven’t had the opportunity to forgive. 

“Once you have the apology and you forgive, then you begin to heal form the traumas that you suffered as a child. Once you have that sense of healing, you begin to feel a sense of justice. That’s what people want - recognition, justice and respect. Once you have that, then you can talk about reconciliation.”

Littlechild emphasized the power of sport to advance reconciliation, saying sport is the medium that brings people together. At the Canada Games, he urged the organizers to leave two lanes empty in memory of the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and the boys that never made it home from residential schools. At a hockey game in Edmonton, he arranged for Metis performers to sing the Canadian national anthem in English, French, Cree and Inuktitut. 

“Both are examples of simple, but powerful messages shared through sport,” he said.

Kerr thanked Littlechild for sharing his experiences and insights on something that’s so important to the faculty – the role of sport and physical activity in advancing society as a whole and, in this case, advancing the process of reconciliation.

“The faculty’s academic plan that was released within the last year is called Transformation in Motion in part because it recognizes the power of sport and physical activity to transform the lives of individuals, community, society and the environment,” said Kerr. “That plan is guided by a number of important principles - from equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, and leadership. 

“Having meaningful conversations like this one is an example of those principles that will guide the faculty’s operations, activities and all the decisions we make.”