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Right To Play: The Indomitable Spirit Of Our Northern Neighbours

10/03/2013 05:04 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

In early January this year, I received an email from the NWT Recreation and Parks Association. They wanted to know if I would be available to do a keynote presentation at their September conference in Fort Smith. The theme was "Playing It Safe vs. Taking Risks," and they wanted to hear how this applied to the quests I had undertaken, as fundraisers, for Right To Play.

I told them that it would be a pleasure and early morning on Sept. 25, I boarded the first of my three flights. The final flight from Yellowknife to Fort Smith was in a 20-seater, prop plane. In flight entertainment was at a minimum but I did find an interesting article in the local News/North newspaper.

The title was "My running is my truth" and it was about a fellow named Brad Firth. Brad had spent twenty years battling addictions but the turning point came when he saw a poster for the 2005 BMO Vancouver Marathon. Not only did he run it but he came in 743 out of 5,000 athletes. Shortly before the article I was reading was published, Brad, whose running name is "Caribou Legs", had just finished an incredible ultra-run. He left Fort Smith on Sept. 4, ran 740 kilometres and arrived in Yellowknife on Sept. 14. Brad said, "running and sobriety have a lot of the same things, there's commitment, desire and discipline".

Arriving in Fort Smith I was met by Lauren and we went directly to the NWT Recreation and Parks Awards night. The highlight of the evening was a presentation by spoken word artist, Shane Koyczan. Shane had performed at the opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. He is an incredibly powerful performer and he held the group of sixty transfixed with a rendition of "To This Day". An animated version of this poem on bullying has had over 10 million views on YouTube.

The next morning, I had an early appointment at a "Trailblazing Walk". It was scheduled to start at 7:00 a.m. and shortly after three of us were heading toward the Slave River. Amanda and Sharon were down from Yellowknife and when Sharon told me her last name was Firth I was blown away. I had read a lot about Sharon and her twin sister Shirley. Both sisters were the product of a pioneering program, in the mid to late 60's, to introduce skiing to Canada's Aboriginal peoples (First Nations and Inuit). Her career was an outstanding testimony to the dedication displayed by her, in achieving a level of excellence very rarely attained by any athlete in this country.

Sharon and Shirley were members of Canada's national cross-country team for an unprecedented 17 consecutive years, competing on the World Cup circuit. Between them, they won 79 medals at a variety of racing distances at the National Championships and competed in four Winter Olympic Games, in 1972 at Sapporo, Japan, in 1976 at Innsbruck, Austria, in 1980 at Lake Placid, New York, and in 1984 at Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. Shirley had passed away earlier this year from cancer. Then I asked if Brad Firth, "Caribou Legs", was a relative and she said he was her brother.

The keynote went well and that afternoon, as I left Fort Smith, I could only wonder at the experiences and incredible people I had met during my 24 hours in Fort Smith, NWT.

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