For Keir Johnston, manager of Team Ontario canoe/kayak at the Toronto 2017 North American Indigenous Games (NAIG), being out on the water is second nature.
Raised by avid white water trippers, Johnston who is Ojibwe through his mother, entered his first boat at five-months-old, entered his first race at age 12 and started winning right away.
“I won provincials when I was 15, and again when I was 16,” Johnston said who competes in various 200, 500, and 1000-metre events along with the marathon. “I went on to nationals, junior nationals and the development team. I just kept ticking away becoming better at the sport.”
The now 25-year-old went on to compete at the Pan Am Championships in Mexico as a junior, the Pan Am Championships in Puerto Rico as a senior and has competed in four marathon World Championships so far.
Coached by his parents from a very young age, Johnston says that as a traditionally Indigenous sport, canoe/kayak has helped him to stay connected to his culture, much of which was lost due to the impact of residential schools on his family.
He competed in his first NAIG at the Denver, Colorado games in 2006 under the tutelage of his mother, Sharilyn Johnson who has served as a coach at numerous Games.
“It’s always been fun having my parents coach me,” Johnston said, who has earned countless awards and accolades throughout his career. “It’s kind of cool looking back at it now. I had been racing for so long at that point. She knew me so well she just kind of let me do my thing.”
With decades of experience now under his belt, in his new leadership position over team Ontario, Johnston says he most looks forward to seeing youth from across the province experience these Games for the first time.
“I have kids coming down to Toronto from some remote communities,” Johnston said. “I’m excited to see them take in the experience and know how special it is to meet all those new people and make all these new friends.”
He also hopes to teach them a thing or two.
“I’m looking forward to teaching the kids race strategies and what top level athletes do at major competitions,” Johnston said. “I think I have a lot to offer them that they may not have been coached. Having a chance at this top-level competition might propel them into dedicating themselves to the sport like it did for me after those Games [in 2006].
Still competitive himself Johnston says his goal this year is to take home five medals at nationals with his team at the Balmy Beach Canoe Club and possibly try out for the Marathon World Championships in South Africa. He says he has learned from the mistake of “putting too much pressure” on himself, and has taken a step back to enjoy the purity of the sport—allowing it to draw him closer to his culture.
“Canoeing is a special sport that our ancestors used as a means of transportation.” Johnston said. “If you wanted to get somewhere fast you needed a fast canoeist and that is Indigenous.
“A lot of kids from up north are battling different issues. Paddling doesn’t have to be about racing, it can be enjoying the scenery, tripping, camping, and fishing I’d like to start teaching kids in communities the craft of building boats and carving paddles like our ancestors did. I hope my influence at these Games will inspire people to get out and be healthy in that way.”