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Lighting the Flame

Thursday, July 27, 2017
Elder Dave Courchene lights Winnipeg’s Centennial Flame on June 21, 2017, ahead of the 2017 Canada Summer Games. Photo: Ethan Krushel/2017 Canada Summer Games

Fifty years ago, 10 young Indigenous athletes ran an 800-kilometre relay from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Winnipeg, Manitoba, carrying the torch that would open the 1967 Pan American Games. On the final leg of the run, teenager Dave Courchene ran to the gates of Winnipeg Stadium and was told to hand over the torch. Instead of completing the relay to light the flame and open the games, a non-Indigenous athlete took over, entering the stadium to the cheers of the crowd.

On June 21, 2017, Elder Dave Courchene came full circle. On that day, Courchene lit Winnipeg’s Centennial Flame, on Memorial Boulevard, ahead of the 2017 Canada Summer Games. “When I lit the cauldron today, something happened emotionally that touched my own spirit – we had finally come to reach that point, to be acknowledged,” said Courchene, in an interview following the torch lighting.

Courchene says as a young man in 1967, he didn’t really understand the significance of what happened to the relay runners known as Front Runners. The symbolism is clear to him now. “It really reflected the marginalization that was the environment of our people. We were never really considered to be a people that could make a full contribution,” he said.

Courchene sees a stark contrast between his 1967 and 2017 experiences. “What happened today was a full contribution”, he said. “The respect that came through from the Canada Summer Games gave us this opportunity to bring the understanding and the meaning of the power of that fire…Fires are central to our way of life and our ceremonies.” 

The torch lighting took place on National Aboriginal Day, after a full morning of ceremony, including a fire ceremony, a water ceremony, a water song and prayers at Manitou Api, a sacred site approximately 150 km east of Winnipeg. Elder Courchene led the ceremony along with Elder Fred Kelly, Elder Harry Bone, Elder Katherine Whitecloud, Elder Florence Paynter and Elder Mary Maytwayashing. 

Eight Indigenous youth considered leaders in their respective communities took part in the ceremony. Four young men each carried a torch containing fire from the sacred site, while four young women each carried a copper vessel filled with water before travelling to Winnipeg for the Centennial Flame ceremony. After participating in the lighting of the copper cauldron located outside the Manitoba Legislative Building, the group headed inside for another ceremony meant to re-ignite the spirit of the building and reconnect it to the land on which it stands. 

“Everything that we do must be to benefit our young people,” Courchene told the people assembled in a circle. “These young people will always remember the time they were allowed to represent their people, and our way of life as a people.” 

For decades, Indigenous ceremonies like the ones performed as part of re-igniting the Centennial Flame were outlawed in Canada under the federal Indian Act. These bans, stretching all the way back to 1885, weren’t fully lifted until 1951, when the Indian Act as a whole was revised. 

Courchene says Indigenous peoples in Canada have not yet achieved the full right of self-determination, but there is an important contribution to be made now, to ensure that there is a future for Indigenous young people. “The message is we have to find a way to live in peace,” Courchene said. “Coming into this building we hope that we have brought a spirit of understanding to this building, that we cannot continue to live in our homeland marginalized. We want to make a contribution in terms of making a better world.”

The 2017 Canada Summer Games take place in Winnipeg from July 28 – August 13. Dave Courchene (Nii Gaani Aki Inini – Leading Earth Man) is a Knowledge Keeper of the Anishinaabe Nation, as well as Founder and Lead Elder of Turtle Lodge, in Manitoba