ISWO’s Virtual Programming Creates Wellness Community for all Ages during the pandemic

Submitted to TRT Staff

MISSISSAUGA, ONTARIO — When the COVID-19 global pandemic was declared last March, Indigenous Sport & Wellness Ontario (ISWO) knew that the organization would have to pivot in order to continue to offer sport and wellness programs in some way.

The organization’s mandate is to support Indigenous athlete development, increased participation in sport and enhance the overall health and wellness for Indigenous Peoples in Ontario.

Public health restrictions resulted in the abrupt stoppage of competitive sport and recreation activities across Ontario, for all ages. This meant that ISWO had to cancel all in-person events including tryouts and preparation of Team Ontario for the 2020 NAIG, 2020 NAHC and the postponement of the 2021 Masters Indigenous Games.

Realizing that much was unknown about how long the limitations would be in place and when a return to play would be possible, ISWO immediately focused on creating a new plan to support youth and communities. Three approaches were used to support wellness: the first approach identified immediate needs of food, hygiene products, hand sanitizer and household goods, as many Indigenous communities, especially those located in rural and northern areas, were facing shortages; the second approach included the development of grant programs to redirect funds directly to communities to be able to support sport, wellness and recreation programs within the community; and the third approach, was to develop a range of virtual and online programs that could encourage physical and mental wellness through participation.

Utilizing ISWO’s Well Nation program, which is based on Indigenous ways of wellness, family participation and community building, ISWO focused on creating family-based activities to keep everyone active by encouraging online communities that people could rely on for inspiration and encouragement.

Over the course of the year, a new Well Nation program was introduced every four to six-weeks, with more than 20 virtual programs in total, including the Well Nation Virtual Games. ISWO’s virtual programming had hundreds of participants and families registering, with many of the programs ran through zoom, Facebook and YouTube.

In June of last year, Well Nation launched a Couch to 5k Running Program on Facebook that turned out to be so popular, the organization launched a second edition this past spring. The Well Nation Couch to 5K Facebook group now has over 1,200 members, with many active participants posting their progress, motivations and challenges each day. The group has grown into a community where people of all abilities are comfortable sharing their wellness journeys, while being supportive of each other.

The Well Nation Boot Camp had a similar story, with a pilot launched last summer and then a second longer edition launched in January, to coincide with New Year resolutions and a focus on being healthy and active. The Facebook group grew each week with the group reaching 850 people by the end of the six weeks. While being a diverse group from across Ontario, many of the participants were women ranging from 25 to 54 years in age.

The participants were all very active and shared their progress, as well as encouraging words with others. Many of the participants reported feeling healthier (both physically and mentally), stronger and more connected to community. The participants commented that the group was extremely motivating and held them accountable for their physical activity and nutrition.
Cyndil Nagabow, one of the weekly winners from the Well Nation Boot Camp Program commented, “Chi-Miigwetch, it’s been a challenging but fun 6-weeks. I loved all the support and great ideas this group has provided me. I started here on January 4 and weighed in at 312 lbs. I jumped on the scale after the 6 weeks and I’m down to 293 lbs.”

In addition to the Couch to 5k program, the following Well Nation programs were held over this past year:
• Virtual Fishing Derby
• Take a Hike Challenge
• Healthy Eating and Active Living (HEAL) Challenge in partnership with N’Amerind Friendship Centre
• Virtual 2k, 5k, 10k, Walk/Run
• A Lunch Time Learning Series on Inuit Culture every Wednesday during the month of October
• HIIT @ Home, a six-week fitness program with live 45 minute sessions offered on YouTube three times a week, hosted by

Indigenous personal fitness trainer, Maria Jacko
• Pow Wow Fitness Step Groove
• NHL21 Tournament
• Wellness Warrior Weekly Challenges for February that had 90-110 people participating each week for the month of February.

As ISWO continued to see great success and community participation in all of its virtual programing, the team started planning to host a virtual games. Although ISWO didn’t have a road map to follow in developing this innovative program, partners at Special Olympics Ontario and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE), offered best practices and suggestions, gleaned from their own experiences in hosting large-scale virtual games and programs.

The Virtual Games, which ran from March 15-25, offered a range of activities including various sport challenges, artic games, fitness activities and fun-zone, and minute to win it challenges for younger participants. Families could register together, but each participant competed in one of three age categories (1-12, 13-19, 20+) for the highest scores and a chance at winning prizes, including six grand-prizes of $500 gift cards sponsored by Canadian Tire.

All ages and abilities were welcome to participate, and winners were announced during the Closing Ceremony. All of the participants received a free prize pack for participating, which included a Games branded t-shirt, a hacky sack and a Team Ontario pin.

While ISWO’s sport program primarily focuses on athlete development and sport specific training for competition at the North American Indigenous Games and National Aboriginal Hockey Championships, the Well Nation platform offers programming that is holistic and family friendly, for those who want to be active, but not necessarily compete.

“Indigenous sport pathways tend to focus more on social and community development, whereas the mainstream sports system generally sets sight upon competition. Through Well Nation, we hope to emphasize healthy active living for those who wish to take part, and perhaps have provided a sense of Everyday Wellness that prepares us to celebrate the return of spring. It’s important that ISWO provides both distinct and cross-cultural influences using a better understanding of knowledge and activities that have sustained us throughout traditional and contemporary settings,” said Mekwan Tulpin, high performance coordinator for ISWO.

“Moving our Well Nation programming online was a much-needed shift regardless of its cause. To some extent, our programs may be limited due to internet accessibility, bandwidth issues, and an on-setting fatigue for many. Although this remains true, we have been continually adapting to what we may be able to offer next in all directions.”

The success of the Well Nation virtual programs clearly demonstrate that there’s a need, not only to remain physically active and focus on wellness, but to connect and be part of a community as a way of coping with the physical isolation and mental stress of living through a pandemic.

The virtual space provides participants an opportunity to connect with others, be a part of something, and feel a real sense of community in a safe way, while having fun and trying to achieve their fitness and wellness goals.

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