Recruitment of Indigenous athletes with Olympic dreams has been added to a Canadian talent identification program for 2023.
In its eighth year, Training Ground is a joint project of the Canadian Olympic Committee and sponsor RBC.
Athletes across Canada between the ages of 14 and 25 are put through a series of speed, power, strength and endurance tests in regional qualifiers, and advance to a final, in hopes of pairing them with an Olympic sport.
Additional custom testing for Indigenous athletes will be introduced this year ahead of July's North American Indigenous Games in Halifax, Dartmouth and Millbrook First Nation in Nova Scotia.
Testing will be offered at pre-Games orientation sessions held by every province for their NAIG teams.
"I can't speak for every Indigenous athlete, but I know growing up it didn't feel like I belonged in a lot of places," said Canadian bobsled team braker Eden Wilson, who is Métis from Alberta's Region 3 and Black.
"I think creating more inclusive camps and combines is an incredible way to get more Indigenous athletes in the door
"It's probably going to be a common question, why can't they just go to the regular combine?
"But, honestly, when you don't see any representation of yourself anywhere, it's really hard to get yourself to those kind of events where, honestly, you're not going to feel as welcomed or maybe there's not quite the sense of belonging that there would be when these more niche combines are set up for Indigenous athletes."
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Calls to Action in 2015 stated the need for "an elite athlete development program for Aboriginal athletes" among other requests to remove sports barriers for Indigenous Peoples.
Brigette Lacquette, a scout for the NHL's Chicago Blackhawks, was the first First Nations woman to play for a Canadian Olympic women's hockey team in 2018.
The 30-year-old from Mallard, Man., recalled how self-conscious and uncomfortable she felt as a shy teenager undergoing fitness testing for a provincial hockey team.
"There's so many good Indigenous athletes across Canada," Lacquette said.
"Even growing up playing hockey, there were kids that were a lot better than me and a lot more skilled than some guys that ended up going and playing in the NHL, but they just didn't want to leave their comfort zone or the reserve … and try new things.
"Now that kids can go in and test … it's accessible to them and they know the people also trying out. You never know what can come from it."
The North American Indigenous Games are expected to draw 5,000 athletes, coaches and team staff from at least 756 Indigenous nations July 15-23.
Alberta's Indigenous talent combine is scheduled for March 11 in Edmonton and Saskatchewan's is May 20 in Saskatoon with other dates and locations still to be announced.
Climbing Canada, Boxing Canada, Triathlon Canada and Wrestling Canada joined RBC Training Ground this year for a total of 12 national sport federations involved in 2023.
There is a funding component providing national sports organizations money to cover training and competition costs of recruited athletes.
"This will literally be an opportunity for all of these Indigenous athletes from across the country to be exposed to the Training Ground equipment, the setup, the same sport officials, and the same testing events that happen across the country," said RBC vice-president of brand marketing Shannon Cole.
"Their scores will be ranked up against everyone else's, and they'll have the same opportunities for exposure and funding as the rest of our athletes."
More than 12,000 athletes across Canada have been tested through Training Ground since its inception, with 1,600 identified by national sports federations as having Olympic potential, according to the COC.
Thirteen alumni competed for Canada in the 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, with track cycling gold medallist Kelsey Mitchell of Sherwood Park. Alta., a success story of the program.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 10, 2023.
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press