Encouraging and strengthening Aboriginal wellness is the focus of a national conference taking place at the University of Guelph this week.

The event comes amid efforts to enhance U of G support for First Nations, Métis and Inuit learners and educators.

The National Aboriginal Physical Activity and Wellness Conference will bring together athletes, sports administrators, coaches, youth organizations and academic researchers from across Canada. More than 500 people are expected to attend.

The event, which runs May 10-12, will include sessions on sport and youth development, community development, and physical activity and wellness.

A discussion on Aboriginal research, policy and issues will be led by Charlotte Yates, U of G provost and vice-president (academic), May 12.

The conference will also highlight U of G’s W.F. Mitchell Athletics Centre, which will now become an elite training centre for the Aboriginal Sport and Wellness Council of Ontario.

“We are extremely pleased to have the conference taking place here, as we believe discussions such as these help highlight the steps schools such as U of G have made to assist in reconciliation with Aboriginal peoples, but also generate insight into what more needs to be done,” said Yates.

Yates launched an initiative last fall to increase the number of Indigenous faculty members at U of G and to increase support for Aboriginal students.

Last year, U of G created the position of special adviser to the provost on Aboriginal initiatives. This week, it was officially announced that Cara Wehkamp, manager of the Office of Intercultural Affairs, will take on the role.

Cara Wehkamp

Wehkamp, who has three degrees from U of G, including a PhD in environmental biology, will work with Yates to develop a strategic plan intended to enable U of G to enhance and support the participation of Aboriginal students, researchers and communities in post-secondary education.

“We want to respectfully engage First Nations, Métis and Inuit cultures, knowledge and histories in curriculum and research while actively responding to the recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada,” said Wehkamp.

U of G currently supports Aboriginal learners through the Aboriginal Resource Centre, as well as through visiting elders and cultural programming.

The wellness conference will include a pow wow May 11, featuring drumming and dancing on Johnston Green. The event starts with the grand entry at noon and concludes at 6 p.m.

Among the conference speakers will be Olympic boxer Mary Spencer, the only Canadian to win three world championships. Spencer has been a part of Motivate Canada’s Gen7 Aboriginal Role Model initiative, aimed at developing sports and recreational programs for youth in First Nations communities.

She will be joined by University of Toronto researcher Ian Mosby. Findings from his earlier post-doctoral research at U of G on government-sponsored nutrition experiments on Aboriginal children made national headlines.

Other speakers will include representatives from sports organizations, community development groups and universities from across Canada.

“It is gratifying to see so many people come together and work towards the goals of engaging and empowering Aboriginal people, especially youth, through physical activity and open discussion,” said Yates.

“We want to have a conversation that recognizes the contributions Aboriginal peoples have made to our communities, and find ways in which we can work towards reconciliation. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has defined this as recognizing the contributions of Aboriginal people to ‘ways of knowing’ and supporting Aboriginal educators, students and their communities.”