How Spirit North Helps Indigenous Youth Participate In Sports

The photo is of a young boy holding a camera to his face; the words below it read, “Spirit North got me out of being too shy to talk to people. I made so many friends during the games. I learned how to talk to people more, and how to make friends without being shy or nervous. I’m really glad I met you Spirit North!”

The photographer is a student, and his home is the Paul Band First Nation, a First Nations reserve located about 65 kilometres east of Edmonton. Taken at face value, the photo and accompanying narrative tell a story; a sweet and simple commentary on preteen social awkwardness, sport, and friendship. Held up against the backdrop of the stark realities of life for Indigenous youth however, it is a very different kind of narrative and a vividly powerful story. It is, at its heart, the story of Spirit North.

Established in 2017, Spirit North was founded on the simple premise that taking part in sport presents a myriad of opportunities for youth to access health, wellness, learning and life-skills; and that this is an opportunity that should be made available to all. As one of the fastest growing, and yet most underserved populations in Canada, Indigenous youth face untold barriers when it comes to participation in sport and accessing the swath of benefits that come with it: something that Spirit North has been working to change – one child at a time.

The past 18 months have been a period like no other we have experienced. As the world around us changed dramatically in response to a global pandemic, our thoughts and our attention went immediately to the communities we serve. Social determinants of health such as overcrowded housing, lack of access to health care, poor infrastructure and chronic diseases magnified the disproportionate burden borne by Canada’s Indigenous communities. Coupled with existing mental health challenges, the disruption, isolation, anxiety and stress caused by the pandemic meant that the mental health effects on the children and youth Spirit North serves would potentially be devastating.

Incredibly, while many organizations saw demand for services contract and discontinue, we began to hear from communities and schools that our programs were more necessary than ever. Determined to support the health and wellness of the kids in our programs, we began adapting and innovating to create opportunities for sport, play and a sense of normalcy. Our strong community relationships and commitment to building community capacity enabled us to work collaboratively with communities to navigate health guidelines and lockdowns, and deliver over 950 innovative program sessions, events, and activities to 40 communities throughout Canada.

From the introduction of new sports such as skateboarding and rock-climbing to rolling out brand-new initiatives such as summer day-camps and a youth leadership module; we navigated health guidelines, collaborated with others, reached remote communities, and launched exciting new programs that created a sense of normalcy and hope throughout such a challenging and difficult time.

Here are just a few highlights:

This past year Spirit North worked with 10 Indigenous communities in Alberta, BC and Saskatchewan to develop trail networks for recreation activities such as mountain biking, running and walking: a legacy that supports and inspires community recreation for generations to come.

Over the last year, six community members became qualified bike instructors with the support of Spirit North. At the forefront of program delivery in some BC communities, new instructors built leadership skills that empowered them to uplift themselves and their communities. As important role models, they are inspiring courage for program participants – sharing language, and invaluable knowledge and skills along the way.

In Black River, Manitoba, a community that spent much of the year in lock-down, local Spirit Community Program Leader Nate Nepinak regularly unlocked the equipment shed, simultaneously opening the door to opportunity for the community’s young people to connect with friends, get some much-needed physical activity, and to experience some normalcy. Community-sustained programs enabled us to create some light during a dark time of isolation and disruption

Spirit North and Cross Country NWT delivered ski programming to children and youth in the NWT community of Inuvik, empowering participants with newfound skills, enabling them to confidently access ski club trails and participate in Inuvik’s Top of the World Loppet. For the future leaders of this remote northern community the chance to ski has inspired them to take steps toward healthy, active futures.

Logging nearly 20,000 kilometres this year, Spirit North’s Traveling Program brought land-based activities to 10 remote communities across Treaty 8 territory. Led by land and outdoor recreation specialists, the program created opportunities for kindergarten through grade 12 students to experience otherwise unattainable sport and play activities and the accompanying feelings of joy, success and pride.

All told, by mid-summer 2021, we had reached 2,700 unique youth across 40 communities through 953 activity sessions, events, and activities (while respecting shifting restrictions and lockdowns). 100% of educators and community members noted improvements in overall wellness (for children and youth who participated in Spirit North activities), and nearly all who participated expressed deep gratitude for the programs and opportunities that created a sense of normalcy and hope in such a difficult time.

To learn more and read the stories and highlights in full, please visit our 2020-2021 Community Impact Report, available here.

Spirit North empowers Indigenous youth to be unstoppable in sport, school and life. Through the transformative power of sport and play, we help youth find the courage to take on any challenge, develop leadership skills, improve their health and wellness, discover new talents and unlock their limitless potential.

Spirit North. Unstoppable.


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