Success and service: Indigenous athletes make indelible mark on province

National Indigenous People’s Day is on June 21. In the spirit of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 87th Call to Action, the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame marks this day by celebrating Indigenous excellence and achievement in sport. In doing so, the SSHF also looks to put a spotlight on the challenges and hardships that the SSHF’s Indigenous inductees overcame in achieving their goals.

The SSHF currently has nine individual inductees who identify as Indigenous. Each has a unique story, but service to community and success over hardship are common themes with each athlete or builder.

Paul Acoose was from the Zagime Anishinabek (Sakimay) First Nation and came from a long line of distance runners. His competitive career was short, but he set a world record and defeated famed distance runner Tom Longboat before returning home to farm and raise a family.

Tony Cote had a lasting impact on the Cote First Nation where he created numerous athletic opportunities for young people. Those athletic opportunities extended across the province when he created the first Saskatchewan First Nations Summer Games in 1974. There is now a distinct Summer and Winter Games and they have both been named after Cote in his honour. Cote became Chief of the Cote First Nation also served during the Korean War.

Alex Decoteau

Alex Decoteau

Alex Decoteau has the distinction of being the first athlete born in what is now known as Saskatchewan to compete at the Olympic Games. Decoteau, from the Red Pheasant Cree Nation, finished sixth in the 5,000-metre run at the 1912 Stockholm Games despite suffering from leg cramps. He would also become the first Indigenous police officer in Canada and was killed serving in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1917 during the First World War.

David Greyeyes was another SSHF Indigenous inductee who served in the military. Greyeyes served in the Canadian Army during the Second World War. While overseas, the gifted soccer player, was a member of the Canadian team that won the Inter-Allied Games in 1946. He was chosen to represent Saskatchewan against top touring English teams in 1937, 1938 and 1949 – a testament to his longevity as a top player.

Jacqueline Lavallee and Fred Sasakamoose at the opening of the SSHF’s Indigenous sport exhibit at the University of Saskatchewan.
David Stobbe/StobbePhoto.ca

Jacqueline Lavallee was a two-sport star at the University of Saskatchewan where she was a Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) All-Canadian in both soccer and basketball. She played for Canada at the World University Games twice and was a member of the women’s national basketball team for three years. She has been an assistant women’s basketball coach at the U of S for 14 seasons.

Jim Neilson was born in Big River, but grew up in an orphanage in Prince Albert. From those humble beginnings he would go on to play more than 1,000 games in the National Hockey League (NHL). Neilson spent 12 of his 16 years in the NHL with the New York Rangers where he played in a two NHL All-Star Games and finished fourth in voting for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenceman in 1968. He finished his career in 1979 playing alongside Wayne Gretzky during his rookie season in Edmonton.

Claude Petit also served in the Canadian Army during the Korean War and he too would compete athletically while serving overseas. Petit was a five-time Canadian Army heavyweight boxing champion and was also the only Canadian to win the British Army Heavyweight title. Inducted as a builder, Petit coached Team Canada at international competitions, worked as an official for several years and served nine years as president of the Saskatchewan Boxing Association.

Fred Sasakamoose was born in the Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation, but was taken from his family when he was six and suffered abuse at the St. Michael’s Residential School. Sasakamoose managed to thrive as a hockey player, being named the Most Valuable Player in the Western Canada Junior Hockey League. He made his debut in the NHL with Chicago in 1953-54 at the age of 19. His NHL career lasted 11 games, but his story had an enduring impact. Sasakamoose became an important community leader and served as Chief for six years. He reclaimed his language, becoming fluent in Cree later in life and worked to promote and develop sport programs for youth including the Fred Sasakamoose “Chief Thunderstick” Championship. In 2018 he was made a member of the Order of Canada.

 Bryan Trottier is one of the most successful hockey players to come from Saskatchewan. He has won six Stanley Cups, the most of anyone in the province. Trottier scored 524 goals and had 1,425 points in 1,279 NHL regular-season games. He was also played in eight All-Star Games. The Hockey Hall of Famer wrote on the NHL website about his youth in Val Marie.

Kenneth Moore is inducted as a member of the 1930 Memorial Cup-champion Regina Pats hockey team. Moore would go on to win an Olympic gold medal in 1932 with a team based out of Winnipeg. Moore, from the Peepeekisis Cree Nation, is believed to be the first Indigenous person to win a gold medal for Canada. There is an excellent account of the toll the Residential School system had on the Moore family and how Kenneth’s parents were able to escape and spare him the same horrors that befell some of his siblings.

Colette Bourgonje won’t formally be inducted as a member of the Hall of Fame until the SSHF Induction Ceremony and Dinner on September 24, 2022. For the past two years she has been sharing her inspiring story as part of the SSHF’s award-winning Never Give Up educational program. A 10-time Paralympian, Bourgonje was the first Canadian to compete in both a Summer and Winter Paralympics. Eighteen years after her Paralympic debut she won Canada’s first medal at the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver.

The Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame is proud to be located in Treaty 4 territory, home to the Cree, Dakota, Lakota, Nakoda, and Saulteaux people since time immemorial and are the traditional homelands of the Métis Nation. The Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame also celebrates the history of sport and the people from the land that is covered by Treaties 2, 4, 5, 6, 8 and 10. These lands have been the home of the Cree, Dakota, Dene, Lakota, Nakoda, and Saulteaux people since time immemorial and are the traditional homelands of the Métis Nation.

While National Indigenous People’s Day is an ideal time to celebrate and share these stories and resources, reconciliation is an ongoing process.

This spring, the Hall of Fame completed and began offering our Indigenous Legacies in Sport outreach program that is offered to schools. It is geared towards elementary school students and highlights some of the achievements and stories of Saskatchewan’s great Indigenous athletes and builders.

The Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame and the University of Saskatchewan have partnered on a display case and video kiosk celebrating Saskatchewan Indigenous athletes and their achievements. This exhibit is on permanent display in the Physical Activity Complex at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Kinesiology in Saskatoon.

Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame has created an incredible new resource for learning about Canada’s great Indigenous athletes. The Indigenous Sport Heroes Education Experience is a first-of-its-kind educational program that was designed to provide educators with the opportunity to integrate Indigenous perspectives and ways of knowing and being into their classrooms.

SSHF marks first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation

September 30, 2021, marks the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

The federal holiday was created to honour the lost children and survivors of residential schools, their families and communities.

In the spirit of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 87th Call to Action, the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame wants to honour this National Day for Truth and Reconciliation by recalling and celebrating Indigenous excellence and achievement in sport in our province and sharing  some of the hardships and challenges those athletes and builders faced. At the same time, we also want to honour and remember all those residential school survivors — though particularly our inductees — as part of this first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

We also want to share other resources that chronicle the stories and achievements of some of Saskatchewan’s Indigenous sporting legends.

While the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is a time to learn and reflect on both the history and ongoing impacts of residential schools, the work of reconciliation is continuous.

To that end, the SSHF wants to continue to preserve and share the history of Saskatchewan’s Indigenous athletes. The Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame has a display case and video kiosk celebrating Saskatchewan Indigenous athletes and their achievements on permanent display in the Physical Activity Complex at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Kinesiology in Saskatoon. 

The Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame currently has nine individual athletes who identify as Indigenous who have been inducted. Those athletes and builders are: Paul Acoose, Tony Cote, Alex Decoteau, David Greyeyes, Jacqueline Lavallee, Jim Neilson, Claude Petit, Fred Sasakamoose, and Bryan Trottier.

Our nomination process is open to the public and if you believe you know of an athlete, builder or team that deserves inclusion into the Hall of Fame we invite you to nominate them. You can learn more about that process here

Colette Bourgonje is a member of the SSHF’s 2021 Induction Class and has appeared at 10 Paralympic Games – both Winter and Summer — and has 10 Paralympic medals. While we look forward to being able to announce her induction date, we were pleased to have Colette be part of our Never Give Up program. Colette, who is of Métis ancestry and grew up in Porcupine Plain, shared her inspiring story with school children across the province through a virtual presentation.

Fred Sasakamoose, left, talks with Chicago Blackhawks captain Alexei Zhamnov after a ceremonial face-off.

Fred Sasakamoose was born on Christmas Day, 1933 in the Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation. When he was six years old, he and his brother Frank were taken from their parents by Indian agents from the Canadian government and driven with 30 other children to the St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Duck Lake more than 100 kilometres away. 

Saskamoose found a love of hockey at the residential school and one of the priests, Father Georges Roussel, helped hone his skill. He also suffered horrible abuse and recounted being raped as a young boy during a Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s community hearing in Prince Albert.

Despite what he suffered through as a child, Sasakamoose excelled as a hockey player and reached the National Hockey League as a 19-year-old in 1953 with the Chicago Black Hawks. In doing so, Sasakamoose became the first Indigenous person with Treaty status to play in the NHL. 

Sasakamoose would spend 35 years as a Band Councillor of the Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation, six as Chief. He worked to give back to his community and build and develop minor hockey and other sports there.

There is no one better to share Fred’s story than Fred himself. Before he passed away on November 20, 2020, he completed his biography Call Me Indian: From the Trauma of Residential School to Becoming the NHL’s First Treaty Indigenous Player. It is an important book and in writing it Fred said:

And I hope by sharing my story now, non-Indigenous readers might have a better understanding of the hurdles we have to overcome to succeed.

I hope by telling my people about the vision of my grandfather Alexan, they will see how their own belief in the future can strengthen those around them.

I hope by telling them about the friendship of men like Ray, like Dave, like Jerry, about the selflessness and generosity of people like George, they will see that there is goodness in the outside world too.

And finally, I hope my story reminds my people that while it might not be a world made for us, it’s a world we can make better by being proud of who we are and where we come from.

— Fred Sasakamoose, excerpt from Call Me Indian.

Bryan Trottier, six-time Stanley Cup champion and one of the greatest hockey players to ever come out of Saskatchewan, penned a first-person essay on his experiences as an Indigenous hockey player.

SSHF inductees like Sasakamoose, Tony Cote, David Greyeyes and Claude Petit also made considerable contributions to their communities after their sporting careers were over.

Tony Cote

Tony Cote

Cote was a residential school survivor and was instrumental in creating the Saskatchewan First Nations Summer and Winter Games in 1974 which are now known as the Tony Cote Summer and Winter Games. He was also elected Chief of Cote First Nation in 1970 and created numerous athletic opportunities for Indigenous youth while also dedicating his time to coaching.

Petit founded the Western Canadian Native Minor Hockey Championships and was a boxing coach, referee and administrator after he hung up his gloves after an impressive career. As a boxer, Petit was a five-time Canadian Army heavyweight boxing champion and the only Canadian to win the British Army Heavyweight Boxing Championship.

Greyeyes is also a residential school survivor who became a Lieutenant in the Canadian Army during the Second World War and was one of the best soccer players in the province during his career, representing Saskatchewan in games against some of the best teams from England. After his athletic career, he became a public servant and became the first Indigenous person to be a director of the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.

Petit, Sasakamoose and Greyeyes each became a member of the Order of Canada. Petit, Greyeyes and Cote also received the Saskatchewan Order of Merit for their contributions to their communities and all three were also veterans who served in the Canadian Armed Forces.

Kenneth Moore

Kenneth Moore

In addition to the individual Indigenous inductees, the SSHF also has inductees who were members of an inducted team.

One of those is Kenneth Moore who was inducted as a member of the 1930 Regina Pats hockey team that won the Memorial Cup. Moore is also the first Indigenous athlete to win an Olympic gold medal.  

Moore was from the Peepeekisis First Nation and was the third of eight kids born in 1910. One biographer reports that Moore’s two older brothers died while attending a Residential School. Following that tragedy, the family moved from Balcarres to Regina.  

A gifted multi-sport athlete, he starred as a right winger on the Regina Pats junior hockey team. In 1930, the Pats met the West Toronto Nationals in the national junior final. The Pats won the first game 3-1 and after trailing 2-0 in Game 2, “Smiling” Ken Moore – as the Regina Leader-Post described him – took a pass in the slot and slid it home with 40 seconds left in the third period to give the Pats a 3-2 and their third Memorial Cup in six years. He also attended Campion College and Regina College on a scholarship where he captained the hockey and rugby teams. 

He joined the Winnipeg Hockey Club and they would go on to beat the Hamilton Tigers in two straight games to claim the 1931 Allan Cup, the national amateur hockey championship. As Allan Cup champions, Winnipeg also earned the right to represent Canada at the 1932 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York. Canada won five games and tied one to earn their fourth straight Olympic gold medal in hockey. Moore scored one goal in the tournament as Canada won Olympic gold.

Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame recently launched their Indigenous Heroes  educational website that features Boungonje, Decoteau and Trottier and many other Canadian Indigenous sporting legends.

These are but a few of the many stories of both Indigenous athletes in Saskatchewan and also the experience of residential school survivors.

Following the discovery of 751 unmarked graves at the Marieval Indian Residential School at the current site of Cowessess First Nation — along with seven other sites in Canada to date — the importance of learning about the history and impact of residential schools has only increased.

The staff at the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame acknowledges the impact and enduring legacy of the residential school system in Canada. Today we reflect on that history, but each day we are dedicated to listening to and learning from the First Nations as we commit to moving towards reconciliation.

To that end, here are some other useful resources to learn more about the history of the residential school system and the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

The film We Were Children is available from CBC Gem and is available for rent from the National Film Board of Canada.

Here is a list of 150 acts of reconciliation penned for Canada’s 150th anniversary.

Learn the history behind Phyllis Webstad’s residential school experience which led to the creation of “Orange Shirt Day”.

The University of Alberta is offering Indigenous Canada, a  free, 12-lesson Massive Open Online Course from their Faculty of Native Studies.

You can also read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls To Action and the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation offers numerous resources.

The Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame is located on Treaty 4 land which is situated on the territory of the Anihšināpēk (Saulteaux), Dakota, Lakota, Nakota (Assiniboine), Nêhiyawak (Cree), and the homeland of the Métis Nation.

The SSHF’s mandate is to share the sport history of the land that is also located on Treaties 2, 5, 6, 8 and 10 territory. Those territories are also the traditional lands of the Anihšināpēk (Saulteaux), Dakota, Denesuline (Dene/Chipewyan), Lakota, Nakota (Assiniboine), Nêhiyawak (Cree), and the homeland of the Métis Nation.

 

Indigenous inductees continue to inspire

June 21 is National Indigenous People’s Day. As we come to terms with the uncovering of 751 unmarked graves at the Marieval Indian Residential School on what is now Cowessess First Nation in addition to the remains of 215 children found at the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School at Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc First Nation, it is clear that there is much to learn and to be reconciled within our history. Given the racist abuse Saskatchewan hockey player Ethan Bear faced online recently, it is evident that even the most accomplished and prominent Indigenous athletes are not spared from overt and public racism.

In the spirit of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 87th Call to Action, the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame wishes to mark National Indigenous People’s Day and National Indigenous History Month by recalling and celebrating Indigenous excellence and achievement in sport in our province while also sharing some of the hardships and challenges those athletes and builders faced.

Many of our Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame inductees overcame different setbacks, hardships and challenges on their journeys to greatness. However, many of the challenges our Indigenous inductees faced were very specific.

Jacqueline Lavallee and Fred Sasakamoose at the opening of the SSHF’s Indigenous sport exhibit at the University of Saskatchewan.
David Stobbe/StobbePhoto.ca

Fred Sasakamoose overcame horrible abuse in an Indian Residential School to be the most valuable player in the Western Canadian Junior Hockey League and crack a National Hockey League roster when he was 19 with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1953. His career in the NHL lacked in length, it more than made up for in influence. His remarkable journey from Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation to the NHL inspired generations of players.

Jim Neilson was born in Big River and he also overcame challenges as a child, growing up in the St. Patrick’s Orphanage in Prince Albert from the age of five. Despite those humble beginnings, Neilson played more than 1,000 games in the NHL as he blossomed into one of the best defencemen of his era while playing with the New York Rangers. He finished his career playing with a young Wayne Gretzky in Edmonton in the World Hockey Association.

Both Sasakamoose and Neilson passed away this past year, a great loss for their communities and all who knew them.

In the early days of the province, some of Saskatchewan’s top athletes were distance runners and Paul Acoose and Alex Decoteau were amongst the best in the world.

Paul Acoose

Acoose was Nakawē (Saulteaux) from the Zagime Anishinabek (previously known as the Sakimay First Nation). In his first professional race, Acoose ran 15 miles in a world-record time of one hour, 22 minutes and 22 seconds and beat famed English runner Fred Appleby, a former world record holder and 1908 Olympic marathon runner. Acoose’s record-breaking time earned him the title of world champion.

Acoose’s rapid rise to success was met with adversity almost immediately. Appleby and Acoose met in a rematch in Winnipeg where gamblers who had bet on Appleby were suspected of throwing thumbtacks on the indoor track. The tacks did not affect Appleby in his thick rubber-soled shoes, but easily penetrated Acoose’s moccasins and into his feet. Acoose had a half-lap lead when the tacks were thrown onto the track. He pulled a tack out of his foot and carried on – running two more miles in bare feet – before stepping on more tacks and was unable to finish the race.

Acoose went on to beat famed Onondaga runner Tom Longboat in 1910 before retiring from professional racing and returning home to farm and raise a family.

Decoteau was the first Saskatchewan athlete to compete at the Olympic Games when he ran the 5,000-metres and finished sixth in 1912. Decoteau was born in the Red Pheasant Cree Nation and was of Cree and Métis descent. His father was murdered when Decoteau was four years old and he was sent to the Battlefords Industrial School.

Decoteau would become the first Indigenous police officer in Canada and has a park in Edmonton named in his honour. He served in the 202nd Infantry Battalion and the 49th Battalion during the First World War and was killed during the Second Battle of Passchendaele in 1917.

Tony Cote, David Greyeyes, Jacqueline Lavallee, Claude Petit and Bryan Trottier are also SSHF Indigenous inductees. There are also several Indigenous inductees who were enshrined in the Hall of Fame as a member of a championship team.

Each of our Indigenous inductees has their own unique story, but so many share the common themes of success, service and beating the odds to achieve greatness.

We look to continue to share and celebrate their legacies as part of the rich history of Saskatchewan sport. Our exhibit dedicated to our Indigenous inductees and their accomplishments is on permanent display in the Physical Activity Complex at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Kinesiology.

At the same time, there is always more sport history to discover. If you believe you know of someone deserving of being inducted into the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame as an athlete, builder or as a team; the nomination process is open to the public.