The FrontRunners from left to right: William Merasty, Patrick Bruyere, Charlie Nelson and William Chippeway, at the showing of Niigaanibatowaad | CBC Photo | 2017-07-21

Indigenous Torchbearers were barred from Pan Am stadium in 1967, but now 'we are making great strides'


Celebrating the North American Indigenous Games and helping raise awareness to right a historic wrong, Niigaanibatowaad: FrontRunners Running & Reconciliation film screening ran in York University's Nat Taylor Cinema on July 19.

The Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS) hosted the screening and post-film Ganoozh (Conversation) with four of the original ten runners who, as teenagers, ran the Pan Am torch 800 miles from Minnesota to Winnipeg in 1967, but were barred from entering the stadium, instead handing the torch to a non-indigenous athlete to bring the symbolic flame inside, and then being told to go to a Pancake House nearby, instead of witnessing the games. Runners Bill Chippeway, William Merasty, Charlie Nelson and Patrick Gruyere attended the screening.

All four participants provided candid and often difficult accounts of the struggles the runners experienced, all as survivors of Residential Schools. Hope was expressed, as were calls to action on the environment.

"It was an extremely moving event," said Ananya Mukherjee-Reed, Dean of LA&PS. "What struck me most is the portrayal of the invincibility of the human spirit, which never succumbs, even if the body may have to sometimes. I am hopeful that interactions like this will enable all Canadians to move towards a deeper understanding of our past and a more inclusive vision of the future."

Professor Gail Vanstone, who MC'd the event, was also instrumental in bringing the original play that evolved into the film to York. Collaborating with its playwright Laura Robinson, the two workshopped it in her Canadian Writer's in Person course with several of the original Frontrunners taking part.

"It was a profoundly moving experience, and one which I am proud to participate in," said Vanstone. "Only through understanding the nature of truth can we work towards reconciliation, and there were countless incredibly powerful truths spoken here tonight."

Hon. Romeo Saganash (MP, Abitibi) gave opening remarks and a glimpse into his own experience in Residential Schools. National Film Board Chair Claude Joli-Coeur spoke of his personal commitment, and that of the NFB, to telling the indigenous story. A stirring honour song and lesson was presented by Kim Wheatley to precede the film and engage the audience. The producer and writer of the featured film, Laura Robinson, provided perspectives on its development and worldwide screenings. Robinson received an Honorary Doctorate from York in 2012.

Professor Ruth Koleszar-Green of the School of Social Work introduced the film to viewers. The School also provided two Master of Social Work graduates for anyone who felt the need for counselling from issues raised during the event, and a reception followed the screening and discussion, which allowed guests to connect in an informal setting.

For more information on the event, see its CBC news coverage, the pre-event story in Y-File, and the original event listing.