Robert Bernard recalls the first time his home community of Waycobah First Nation hosted the Nova Scotia Indian Summer Games in 1979 when he was 12-years-old. He remembers watching a group of runners from the previous host community as they entered the community with a scroll to officially hand over to organizers to mark the beginning of the games.
“I remember people getting so excited waiting for the runners to come,” Bernard, 49, recalls.
“It was the signal to the start of the games,” he said.
Bernard, who was the executive director of the Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Sports and Recreation Circle in 1997-2007, says it was during those games in 1979 that he got a taste of moments to come in his life as he became more involved in competitive sports such as fastball.
“As a young boy, just competing in the other events they had for kids just seemed to be a start into something that was coming that was more exciting as we got older,” Bernard says.
The Maritime Native Summer Games: 1972-1976
Prior to 1977, the games were called the Maritime Native Summer Games. First Nation communities from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador sent athletes and teams to take part in the annual sporting event. Some of the competitions included in the games include fastball, softball, track and field, canoeing and horseshoes.
The Maritime Native Summer Games were held in the following First Nation communities:
- 1972: Tobique First Nation, N.B.
- 1973: Eskasoni First Nation, N.S. (portion of track and field events took place in Fredericton, N.B.)
- 1974: Elsipogtog First Nation, N.B.
- 1975: Indian Brook First Nation, N.S.
- 1976: Kingsclear First Nation, N.B.
Eleanor Bernard, 53, from Eskasoni recalls winning 12 medals, three of them gold, in track and field during the 1975 Maritime Native Summer Games at Indian Brook First Nation, N.S. She was 12-years-old at the time.
“I remember being really tired,” Bernard recalls with a chuckle.
“At the time, it was just one of those things that I enjoyed doing and I really loved it,” Bernard said. “I was happy that they had track and field that day and that they actually had a regulation 400 metre track,” she said.
Bernard, who is the executive director of Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey, also recalls how exciting it was for her to meet other Mi’kmaw and Maliseet youth from other First Nation communities in the Atlantic region during those games.
“Oh my God! It was getting together, meeting people from different communities, meeting other young people from different communities,” Bernard recalls.
Bernard adds that she also enjoyed the cultural aspect of the games as well as the annual pageant that was held at the games.
NS First Nations break away from Maritime Native Summer Games
In 1976, all but one of the Nova Scotia First Nations boycotted the Maritime Native Summer Games in Kingsclear First Nation, N.B.
According to Micmac News reporter Russell Marshall, he wrote in his news article in August 1976 that the boycott was due to the annual sporting event conflicting with St. Anne’s Mission in Potlotek, N.S. and St. Anne’s Feast celebrations during the last week in July in all Mi’kmaw communities in the province.
All Nova Scotia First Nation communities except Millbrook refused to send athletes to Kingsclear, N.B. to compete.
Following the 1976 boycott, Nova Scotia First Nations leaders chose to hold an annual summer games event just for Nova Scotia First Nations. The Miawpukek First Nation in Newfoundland and Labrador would also participate in the Nova Scotia games.
For the next decade, the Nova Scotia Indian Summer Games were held each year in the following communities:
- 1977: Potlotek First Nation
- 1978: Paqtnkek Mi’kmaq Nation
- 1979: Waycobah First Nation
- 1980: Pictou Landing First Nation
- 1981: Membertou First Nation
- 1982: Millbrook First Nation
- 1983: Wagmatcook First Nation
- 1984: Eskasoni First Nation
- 1985: Indian Brook First Nation
- 1986: Annapolis Valley First Nation
- 1987: Potlotek First Nation
For Robert Bernard, the 1985 Nova Scotia Indian Summer Games in Indian Brook, N.S. was a special one for him. That year, his fastball team, the Whycocomagh Warriors, won the championship game against the home team, the Indian Brook Titans. At the time, he was the pitcher for his fastball team.
“It was an incredible experience that I still remember to this day,” Bernard recalls. “When you realize others depend on you and you are able to deliver and then win a championship, boy, that confidence just transfers into life,” he said.
Bernard credits that first championship he won at the 1985 summer games as the reason he became a coach and volunteer.
“What that did was really push me to give that feeling and opportunity to other kids in my community,” Bernard said.
“To try to share that knowledge, paving that way for others to be successful,” he said.
First Nations found hosting NS Summer Games too costly
After 1987, the Nova Scotia Indian Summer Games weren’t always held every year due to a lack of money. While the host community received some financial support from Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada to host the annual summer games, it wasn’t always enough to cover all of the costs to host the games.
The games became more expensive to host each year which left the host Mi’kmaw community with a deficit. As a result, interest among the communities to host the games began to wane.
“The budget for the games always went way over what they were supposed to spend,” Bernard explained.
“Other communities just didn’t have that kind of money to throw around,” he said.
“The summer games was a very good thing for our communities,” Bernard said. “It’s just the reality that we had to find a way to be able to host them and be financially responsible at the same time,” he said.
Games return in 2010 – now called Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Summer Games
According to Bernard, the Mi’kmaw chiefs in Cape Breton started to have discussions in 2009 to revive the annual summer games event.
During those discussions, a new business model was proposed in which each of the five First Nation communities in Cape Breton would contribute $50,000 each year to help the host community with costs.
A template was also developed to help the host community with registration and pre-planning, Bernard explained.
In 2010, the first community to host the new Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Summer Games was Membertou First Nation in Sydney, N.S.
“Involving more inter-community support was, I think, really important for the last five years,” Bernard said.
Since the games were revived in 2010, the following communities have hosted the Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Summer Games:
- 2010: Membertou First Nation
- 2011: Wagmatcook First Nation
- 2012: Eskasoni First Nation
- 2013: Waycobah First Nation
- 2014 Potlotek First Nation
- 2015: Millbrook First Nation
Bernard, who has four daughters, says the revived summer games means his children can now experience what he experienced as a teenager taking part in the games.
“It’s important for them to experience what I think was an important piece of my life growing up.”