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“Olympics of the North”

For the week of Monday, March 9, 2015

On March 9, 1970, the first Arctic Winter Games opened in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, marking the beginning of a biannual tradition that celebrates northern athleticism and heritage.

The opening ceremonies of the first Arctic Winter games
© D. Paterson / Fitness and Amateur Sport Directorate / Dept. Of National Health and Welfare / Library and Archives Canada / e007914210

Founded on the principals of athletic competition, cultural exhibition, and social interchange, the Arctic Winter Games (AWG) were created following the first Canada Winter Games (CWG). At the CWG, teams from the Northwest Territories and Yukon were continually outplayed and games often ended in lopsided scores. So, Cal Miller, the financial advisor to the CWG Yukon team, decided to create a place where these teams could compete against each other on their own terms. With the help from the Commissioners of Yukon and Northwest Territories (federal leaders), the Alaskan governor, and the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (now Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development), the Arctic Winter Games were brought to life.

The first games were opened by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and featured some 500 athletes from Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Alaska. The games have since grown to include nearly 2,000 athletes and coaches, with teams from Nunavik (Northern Quebec), Northern Alberta, Nunavut, Greenland, the Yamal region of Russia, and Northern Scandinavia (Team Sampi).

A contestant in the flying trapeze competition
© D. Paterson / Fitness and Amateur Sport Directorate / Dept. of National Health and Welfare / Library and Archives Canada / PA-134940

While sports like hockey, curling, and alpine skiing are part of the games, so are dog mushing (a timed event where a rider in a sled is pulled by a team of dogs around a course) and snowshoeing. Dene and Inuit arctic sports unique to these Aboriginal communities are also included. These require little or no equipment and were traditionally used to teach the skills necessary for survival on the land, including strength, flexibility, endurance, and pain tolerance. For the knuckle hop, for example, participants hold themselves on their toes and knuckles in a plank position while hopping around a course for as long as possible, with the greatest distance winning.

The AWG also offer exhibitions that showcase the cultures of the participating communities. These can include Inuit throat singing, Métis fiddling, and Dene drumming. There are also medal, opening, and closing ceremonies, making the AWG truly the “Olympics of the North.”

The Right Honourable Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada (1968-79 and 1980-84), who opened the first Arctic Winter Games, is a National Historic Person.

To read more about Inuit culture and history, please read: Inuit Vote for “Our Land” , Ipirvik and Taqulittuq, and A Great Inuit Artist and Photographer in the This Week in History archives.

Follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada. Also, click here to learn about the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

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