Jortany Martienz, a Grade 5 student from St. Joseph Catholic School in the Leslieville neighbourhood, participates in an event at his school's Northern Spirit Games Feb. 27. Photo by Evan Boudreau

Toronto Catholic board's Northern Spirit Games was a day of learning and fun

  • February 28, 2017

By hosting the Northern Spirit Games, Toronto's Catholic school board is giving students more than just a taste of traditional play for the day.

“This is a tremendous opportunity to give them a real voice about a real living culture,” said Métis John Somosi, who facilitated the Games' opening ceremonies at St. Patrick Catholic Secondary School on Feb. 27. “I bring an awareness of a culture that is still alive and well, that is still surviving, however limited we are at this moment.”

Two other Catholic schools in the city held the Games this year: Dante Alighieri Academy on Feb. 23 and St. John Paul II Catholic Secondary School on Feb. 28. Each site welcomed about 300 students, Grades 4 to 6, from 10 elementary.

Originally known as the Arctic Games, the annual event began in 2002 as a response to the Twinning Initiative established by former lieutenant of Ontario James Bartleman that paired native and non-native schools.

Since the inaugural Games, about 23,000 Catholic elementary students have been exposed to traditional aboriginal games, teachings and culture.

“The children in each tribe has the most important job in the tribe,” said Somosi, summarizing his opening remarks. “The first most important job is to play and the second most important is to have fun. When they are playing and having fun they find a passion based on what they are naturally good at.”

Once unearthed, that natural passion is to be integrated into daily life as a hobby and possible as a profession according to traditional teachings, he said.

“Just keep that joy of life so that life doesn't become a burden.”

Following the opening ceremonies, students tried their hand at 10 traditional sports such as Stick Toss, which resembles lawn darts, the Seal Race where students collected rubber fish by crawling on their stomaches like the aquatic mammal, and Kick Ball which is similar to the high jump.

The latter ended up being the favourite of Jortany Martienz, a Grade 5 student from St. Joseph Catholic School in the Leslieville neighbourhood, who called the game “a really fun and creative thing to do.”

The 10-year-old also said the Northern Spirit Games were about more than just a day of play.

“It's important for us to learn about First Nation culture because they're our ancestors,” he said.

Martienz's teacher ,Simon Crisolago, said the Games help bring the curriculum to life for his students.

“(It's) a hands-on way ... to make a connection with what they are learning in school,” said the teacher. “When learning from other cultures, the similarities with our beliefs and in our way of life, there is always a connection with something from the past.”

Having brought students to the Games in the past, Crisolago said those connections aren't soon forgotten.

“They'll remember this next year, and the year after that,” he said. “I've brought kids here before who are now in high school thay remember when they did this.”

Selina Cunga, a Grade 11 student at St. Patrick, never had the opportunity to participate in the Northern Spirit Games while in elementary. So when she heard the Games were coming to her high school the 16-year-old knew she wanted to volunteer.

“I wanted to see what kind of activities they do,” she said. “We're experiencing all kind of new things. It's fun to see people doing things that we don't normally do.”

And it isn't just the students benefiting.

“This has helped me as much as it has helped the kids,” said Somosi, who has worked with school boards across the province for 17 years.

He is an example of the intergenerational impacts of acculturation.

“(My mom) did go to a French Catholic school where any of the native language or any of the native culture or teachings was literally beaten out of them,” he said. “When she got out of school she didn't know how to be a mother because she never had that role model.”

Like many First Nations of his generation, Somosi, who relied on tribes like the Ojibwe adopting him for cultural education, had some reservations about Catholic schools

But after seeing the students Somosi knew he'd be coming back year after year. He estimates that through the Northern Spirit Games he's been able to help turn “the book learning that they get in school into a real personal interaction,” for some 12,000 students.

“'This is an absolutely worthwhile project and the amount of smiles over the years,” he said. “I come back because of this. It is a beautiful positive thing.”

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