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Junior All Native Tournament in Nanaimo, B.C., is about more than basketball

First Nations dancer at Junior All Native Tournament basketball tournament First Nations dancer at Junior All Native Tournament basketball tournament - The Canadian Press

More than 1,200 youth basketball players sang and danced their way into Frank Crane Arena on Sunday night for the opening ceremony of the Junior All Native Tournament.

Kate Good, one of the event's organizers, found herself emotional at the spectacle and, when the lights eventually came back up and the fog cleared, she took a moment to herself to soak it all in.

"It's been a lot of work put into this and it's not all me, man. This is beyond me," said Good, who got choked up again recounting the ceremonies a day later. "There's a big team behind me that's really been supportive this whole entire time and I'm grateful for it.

"All I want is for our youth to know that they're important and that we are going to do this for them every year, year after year."

Hosted by Snuneymuxw First Nation, the Junior All Native Tournament (JANT) began play on Monday with basketball players from more than 100 First Nations across British Columbia competing in several venues in Nanaimo and surrounding communities. Organizers said that it's the largest youth tournament of its kind to date.

Good, who is a member of the Snuneymuxw First Nation's band council, said that it was gratifying to see a kind of normalcy return after COVID-19 regulations made events like the tournament impossible.

"The stands were full, the floor was full," Good said of the 2,400-seat arena that hosted the ceremony. "Just looking around at all the people with their love of the sport. Even elderly people, like 92 years old, coming because he's gone to every single solitary JANT for years except for when COVID hit.

"This is a tradition for a lot of people. Everybody looks forward to it."

Isaac Thomas, the under-17 boys coach of Snuneymuxw Native Sons and another member of the band's council, was one of the final people to walk on the arena's floor as a member of the host team. He said he was also moved by seeing so many Indigenous people in one place, celebrating their culture.

"They got to see, they got to hear, they got to feel, and in most cases they even got to touch the drums," said Thomas. "When you hear the drum, in any region of our province or in the country for that fact, the sacred meaning of the drum and the song starts it's really cleansing. It's a cleansing, it's a healing.

"When the beat of the drum starts to take over and the songs start to lift up, it's definitely a cleansing moment, a heartfelt moment, from village to village. It was really heartfelt. Everybody was on their feet."

According to the Coaching Association of Canada, between 40 and 48 per cent of Canadian children and adolescents have had mental health issues following the pandemic. Good and Thomas were both excited to see Indigenous youth once again playing and, hopefully, making friends from across the province.

"It was very apparent that adults were struggling, taking time off work, but how did our kids respond? How did we allow our kids to respond?" asked Good. "So this is kind of an outlet, because we know physical activity, outdoors and whatnot, is so good for our youth to build on."

Thomas agreed.

"To be able to have the green light to host and have these tournaments and bring some normalcy back to the youth is hugely important," he said. "To continue the tournaments from coast to coast is a wonderful thing."

He added that because of the size of the tournament — every player has a parent, coach, or other family member accompanying them — the JANT is a larger celebration of Indigenous culture, with the participants able to honour the similarities and differences between their peoples.

"We get to share our culture, they get to share their culture, have some war on the floor, potlatch at night, war on the floor again, potlatch, again," said Thomas. "It's a beautiful thing to be able to network, especially for the athletes.

"There's great importance and healing in terms of networking and making lifelong friendships."

The tournament continues all week, finishing Friday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 20, 2023.