Jason Leonard is downright famous for sharing his time, dedication and knowledge with his community, so it is probably not surprising that he volunteered for the Canada Winter Games as well.
Though it did surprise Leonard somewhat.
“It really came out of nowhere,” the Whitehorse resident says.
As he puts it, after being distracted for a split second (long enough to let out a rousing cheer for his athletes): “You gotta be in the right place, at the right time.”
Leonard was loading his Bobcat onto a trailer after an evening of snow removal a week before the Games when he was approached by Shirley Dawson, coach for the female half of the eight-member Dene team.
Leonard, who describes himself as “an active kind of person,” eagerly accepted Dawson’s challenge to coach the male half of the team.
Leonard is familiar with Dene games and is known by many of the athletes, having been invited by a college classmate to compete in the 2006 Arctic Winter Games (Kenai Peninsula, Alaska).
“I enjoyed the Arctic Winter Games so tremendously that I felt it was an opportunity to continue to grow in my knowledge of the Games, spend time with the young people and be a positive role model,” says Leonard, whose initial surprise at having been given the opportunity has been overtaken by his enthusiasm for the new duties.
“My role is to encourage and support my team and be a good example,” he says.
The most important thing is “being able to re-integrate these Games back into my life.”
Leonard, whose roots lie with the Shuswap Nation (Kamloops), brings pride and understanding about a traditional lifestyle to his coaching efforts.
For Leonard, the Dene games are about “meeting new people and learning deeper roots.
“I’m learning my culture, due to the fact that I grew up in a white society and never really experienced my background.
“Every part of these games has to do with traditional lifestyle: hunting, fishing, strength and endurance…
“The stick pull, for example, is about catching fish, about strength.”
Competitors face off, bracing themselves foot-to-foot, and awaiting the signal, before each grips a birch stick greased with Crisco, and begins a steady pull that requires intense concentration and strength.
The same concentration and strength are required in hand fishing for large salmon, char and trout.
Similarly, “The snow snake is about hunting ptarmigan and rabbits,” says Leonard. “All the athletes understand.”
And they certainly seem to.
The athletes are enthusiastic.
“Culture is key,” says Blake Lepine, 19.
“Best traditional experience,” adds 17-year-old Doronn Fox.
“Go for the gold!” says 17-year-old Derrick Smith, nearly drowning out Fox’s reply.
“Our culture is our identity,” says 21-year-old Jonah Caesar after a thoughtful moment.
All four grin and nod their agreement, and, with that, they are raring to go.
Week Two of the Canada Winter Games began Sunday.
The Dene games, starting off with the stick pull event, are underway as well.
Dene games are being held at ATCO Place and FH Collins.
The three territories (Yukon, Nunavut and the NWT) are represented by eight-member teams, with four males and four females on each team.
This is the first time that Inuit and Dene games have been included in the Canada Winter Games, but Leonard believes they will become a regular event.
“I anticipate seeing Yukon flourish with their medals and I think the Inuit and Dene games are going to be part of the Canada (Olympic) Games in Vancouver in 2010,” he says.