Some coaches and teams heading to this summer’s North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) are calling for its COVID-19 vaccine mandate to be lifted.

“To not let these kids go that are not vaccinated, I don’t think that’s fair,” said Mike Benedict, head coach of Team Eastern Door and the North’s U-19 boys lacrosse team.

“Every kid should be able to compete.”

Team Eastern Door and the North (EDN) is sending around 300 athletes from First Nations and Inuit communities in Quebec to the games, which are set to take place July 15-23 in Halifax and Millbrook First Nation in Nova Scotia.

Mike Benedict (left) is the head coach of Team Eastern Door and the North’s U-19 boys lacrosse team. He was one of the commentators for the National Lacrosse League’s weekend in Akwesasne last year. (Submitted by Mike Benedict.)

Benedict, who is from Akwesasne, a Kanien’kehá:ka community on the Quebec, Ontario, and New York state borders, said if the mandate isn’t lifted, it will severely impact his team. He said his coaching staff agreed to boycott the games if a solution is not met.

“As coaches, we’re supporting our team, we’re supporting our players, and if they can’t go because of that needle, then we shouldn’t go either,” he said.

“They tried and they made the team, and they have a right to be there — and we’re going to sit [out] along with those kids.”

The mandate is also a concern for Karonhiio Curotte from Kahnawà:ke, a Kanien’kehá:ka community south of Montreal, who is coaching EDN’s archery team. He will potentially lose three out of the six archers on the team.

Curotte is a first responder in his community and knows the importance of the COVID-19 vaccine, but questions who is guiding NAIG’s vaccine policy, as similar mandates have been lifted for other sporting events in Canada, including the recent Arctic Winter Games and the Canada Winter Games.

“I don’t know what kind of information [NAIG is] using … or who they’re listening to,” he said. 

“But the reality is, by the time the games rolls around this summer, is it really going to matter? Is it really going to be that big of a deal?”

Kahnawà:ke leadership call for mandate to be lifted

Half of EDN’s contingent of athletes and coaches are from Kahnawà:ke. Roiatate Horn, the director of sports and recreation at the Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke, said about 20 athletes and 10 coaches were denied vaccine exemption requests from event organizers.

He is pushing for the mandate to change, and rallied several letters of support from leadership to pressure the NAIG Council and Host Society to change its position.

Members of Team Eastern Door and the North pose with their gold medals after winning the U-19 girls box lacrosse finals at the 2017 North American Indigenous Games. (Tim Fontaine/CBC)

“We don’t want to leave anybody behind,” said Horn.

“For a lot of athletes in the community, this is their Stanley Cup. This is their Super Bowl.”

Horn himself competed and coached golf at NAIG when he was younger, and said for many it’s their only chance to compete on an international level.

NAIG stands behind mandate

Neither the NAIG Host Society nor members of the NAIG Council’s executive committee responded to multiple requests for comment from CBC News.

In a March 2 news release, NAIG Council said it will continue with its mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy, requiring all athletes, coaches, managers, officials, guests and media to provide proof of a complete series of a Health Canada approved COVID-19 vaccine at least 14 days prior to their arrival at the 2023 Games.

“NAIG Council firmly believes that vaccination is an appropriate mechanism to protect all members of the NAIG family and the general public. This includes Elders of the Mi’kmaq host territory who have shared they are not comfortable with unvaccinated groups coming into their territory,” the statement said.

NAIG said the policy was developed in consultation with the expertise of the medical community and was presented and reviewed during NAIG Council meetings in April 2022, and again in November 2022. 

The chef de mission and the assistant chefs de mission of Team EDN were in Halifax in January as a part of a preparatory meeting for the 2023 North American Indigenous Games. (Équipe PEN – Team EDN/Facebook)

As a regional team, EDN is part of the NAIG Council. 

Médérik Sioui, the chef de mission for Team EDN, said EDN supported the vaccine mandate when the decision was first made during the height of the pandemic with the support of the Mi’kmaw elders from the host society. However, he said how the world deals with the pandemic has since evolved.

“We are not dealing with COVID-19 the same way we were dealing a year ago … Right now there is no state of emergency anywhere in Canada, there is no requirement anywhere else in Canada,” he said.

“We don’t want to be disrespectful. But maybe there’s ways that could reassure the elders, make the situation safe for them, as well as allowing all our athletes to attend.”

Sioui said discussions are ongoing about finding a solution.

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