Front-runners film screened
SASKATOON — In 1967, nine Aboriginal boys, champion cross-country runners from Manitoba, were asked by organizers to run the torch for the Pan-American games from Minnesota to Winnipeg, 500 miles in six days. But when they reached the Winnipeg stadium, they were barred from entry, and a non-Aboriginal male brought the torch in. Local organizers felt the final runner needed to be someone “more representative of a true Canadian.”
William Merasty from the Sandy Bay and Pelican Narrows area was one of those nine Aboriginal boys, and one of the seven who returned for an official apology in 1999 (two had passed away before the apology came.)
“I was excited when they called. The first trip had been a real eye-opener for us, travelling like that, we were treated like royalty along the way,” Merasty said. Despite Saskatchewan roots, he was in a northern Manitoba boarding school at the time.
“The run was a great experience. But I was from Saskatchewan, they were all from Manitoba; the other guys were Ojibwe, I spoke Cree. I was a banana in an apple bin,” he joked. When he was brought into the packed and cheering stadium in 1999 on canoe-shaped floats with the other runners, it was indescribable. “I broke into a big smile. I knew my son was in the crowd there, and I was trying to wave to where I thought he was.”
Laura Robinson, a journalist who was in attendance at the 1999 event, interviewed all the men and wrote a piece for the publication Aboriginal Voices, later creating a play, Front Runners, during a writing residency in Calgary — the inspiration for her later screenplay which was made into a film. The term “front runners” comes from the Anishnaabe word niigaanibatowaad; many of the young men had been front-running on traplines, to break snow before the sled-dogs, which was why they were such strong distance runners.
Oskayak School hosted a special screening of the film in early October, with students from their law class hosting, attending, drumming, and filming. Mary Eberts of the University of Saskatchewan was one of the hosts and organizers, while Rachel Snow, from the College of Law, also joined in a panel with Merasty, Robinson, and Shannon Loutitt, a local honour-runner.
“When our stories don’t get heard, the gift and the magic and the treasures don’t get passed on,” noted Loutitt, before presenting Robinson with one of her triathlon medals as a way of thanking her for her story-telling. She also gifted Merasty a piece of the grandmother cloth from her Tom Longboat Boston Marathon honour-run.“Thank you William — your story was one of huge sacrifice but also a huge lesson. It will never be forgotten.”
Merasty was very moved; he remembers a poster of Tom Longboat in his Grade 1 class at residential school.
“I am one of those who admitted I really loved residential school, it really became my home. But as a result I drifted further and further away from my parents and grandparents. I was four years old when I left home. When I saw my mother at Christmas, it took me a while to recognize her.”
He says that while he wasn’t physically abused, it affected him mentally and emotionally. Another experience of residential school was the constant hunger — “The food was terrible,” so he would load up on bread at breakfast — and emotional hunger as well. But he mostly focuses on the positive, while being honest about the long-term effects.
Rachel Snow spoke about the film screening, saying that her response to it was positive: the representative character chooses to coach young people in running, rather than letting the experiences of racism and abuse destroy him, much like Merasty himself.
“I liked the way there was a positive ending, that someone could have a healing,” Snow noted. She urged the young people to remember, “We were always warriors, we have to be willing to fight for this land and what we have been given, being a front-runner today by technology, education, and traditional knowledge. We speak the language of the non-Aboriginal people. It is time for them to learn ours.”
Robinson, the non-Aboriginal member of the panel, agreed.
“You have to base a country on truth,” noted Robinson. “We have these fairy tales of official Canadian history, this place of equality and justice and peace, that simply aren’t true.”