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By Santiago Martinez and Beth Yarzab

On January 26, 2022, canfitpro Staff and PRO TRAINERS were fortunate to learn from three Indigenous Leaders at a webinar about fitness experiences in their communities. The education was part of canfitpro’s commitment to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, with the objective of building awareness of what fitness means for Indigenous People as it relates to health, culture, and connection.

Featuring a panel of canfitpro members from multiple First Nations we heard compelling stories and absorbed important education regarding Indigenous Ways of Knowing. This session was important to building awareness about the unique needs Indigenous communities have when accessing fitness opportunities.

Below you will find the bios of our inspiring panelists, as well as a summary of the discussion held during this webinar.

Meet the Panelists

Natalie Paavola is from Namaygoosisagagun First Nation, located within the Robinson Superior Treaty area. Namaygoosisagagun is a small remote First Nation located 275 km north of Thunder Bay, ON – with limited accessibility, in the heart of the boreal forest.

Natalie achieved a degree in Indigenous Learning from Lakehead University, and has numerous credentials from Leadership Thunder Bay, Rotman School of Management, and York University.

She also holds a First Nations Health Manager designation and is currently employed as a Director of Health. 

Natalie is an avid outdoors enthusiast and athlete, completing numerous Spartan and Ragnar races, and leading women’s soccer and baseball teams. She is a canfitpro Fitness Instructor Specialist, and successfully pursued the Spartan SGX and Agatsu Kettlebell Level 1 Certification within the last couple of years.

Connect with Natalie on Instagram: @NatPaav:

Jesse Benjamin is a mother of four, a Personal Trainer, a Veterinarian, a Mi’kmaq artisan, a fancy shawl dancer, and the founder of Two Eyed Wellness. Her mission is to inspire other Indigenous people to reclaim their own health and wellness: to become strong in mind, body, and spirit. She integrates her own Indigenous worldview and culture into all her education offerings, programs, and workshops. Jesse is in Mi’kma’ki, Nova Scotia and is a canfitpro PRO TRAINER who teaches the PTS program.

Connect with Jesse on her website or on Instagram: @Jesse_Benjamin_!

Patrick Gladue is from the Bigstone Cree Nation. He is the Fitness Director at the 7 Chiefs Sportsplex on the Tsuut’ina Nation and is the Creator and Race Director for the Tsuut’ina Trail Run. He has created four fitness centres (Bigstone Cree Nation, City of Red Deer – Collicutt Centre, Lifestyles and 7 Chiefs Fitness for the Tsuut’ina Nation) including his own which he sold in 2015.  Has competed in five Ironmans achieving podium finishes in triathlon and has qualified and competed in Xterra World Championships. Patrick still coaches endurance athletes in a wide variety of events.

Connect with Patrick on LinkedIn

Exploring the WHY and Purpose that Drives these Indigenous Leaders Forward

For Patrick, located on the Tsuut’ina Nation on the outskirts of Calgary, he helped the webinar participants understand the differences in living on and off reserve.

Throughout his personal and professional life, Patrick saw firsthand some of the health issues his people face, such as diabetes. When he began training for an Ironman while living on a reserve, he recognized the lack of safe areas to walk or run in the community (narrow roads and lack of sidewalks), this experience inspired him to take action and help make physical activity more accessible.

In 2000, Patrick organized a 125 km race with the purpose of raising awareness for diabetes and to help his community become more physically active. The race created a path of wellness through fundraising and awareness building. This initiative was successful as Patrick and his collaborators forged a pathway for people on the reserve to stay active.

After years of working in his own fitness facility in Calgary, Patrick saw the opportunity to return to the fitness industry at the Tsuut’ina Nation where a state-of-the-art sports plex facility was built on the outskirts of southwest Calgary, AB, which includes three rinks, a gymnasium, and fitness centre.

This facility has created an immense opportunity to create different programs for the wellness, health, and fitness of the Tsuut’ina Nation, and the citizens of Calgary, as its location has built a bridge to cater the people around it.

Jesse’s own personal journey has taken her on a remarkable path as she decided to get back into fitness after having her four children and starting her career. Her first WHY for starting back into fitness, was to reconnect with her body as she felt she had lost that part of her life. She started a self-care journey and reconnection to her authentic self, with a focus on getting back to who she really was after going through a difficult period of grief.

Jesse was a working single mother whos life was changed by the loss of her job, as a veterinarian, when the pandemic hit. Even though these were difficult times, she saw this as a blessing as it gave her the gift of time, realizing that she didn’t have any sort of creative or spiritual outlet in her life, which was the missing piece from her own personal journey.

This took her to reconnect more with her culture by learning Fancy Shawl Dancing, a very physically, demanding, and high-intensity dance which matched the type of physical activity Jesse already enjoyed. This also gave her a spiritual and cultural component to her life, which led her to decide she no longer wanted to go back to practice veterinary medicine as she felt that work, combined with her role as a mother, impacted her quality of life. . Now, her life balance has allowed her to grow exponentially the relationship she has with her children.

Jesse joined the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre in Halifax, NS as an Active Living Community Coordinator. In this role she is able to live her mission of inspiring other Indigenous people to reclaim their own health and wellness, in a large, supportive organization.

She lives in Mi’kma’ki, Nova Scotia, an ancestral and unseeded Land on which its people never signed over, never lost, never surrendered, and never gave up. Her people have lived on this Land for the past 13,500 years.

Natalie’s WHY is because of who she is. She is an Anishinabek, who grew up on a remote community and relocated to the city of Thunder Bay located on the Fort William First Nation Traditional lands to pursue her education. As she grew up in Thunder Bay, ON, she didn’t see herself represented in the community.

Natalie recognized that she could break down barriers to create more representation of Indigenous People in sports, athletics, fitness, and recreation. She has become a leader and role in both healthcare and fitness within the urban center of Thunder Bay.

Her WHY comes from her perspective and experience on the lack of Indigenous representation in educational institutions and in the sports community, and from being a daughter of a residential school survivor, experiencing first-hand the impacts of colonialism. It’s because of her father, and everyone else who experienced this, It’s because of her father, and all the other victims of residential schools, that Natalie feels inspired to work hard for her community and give them an opportunity to see themselves as part of it, and to show them that nothing is impossible.

She is very passionate about her WHY, as she believes people must hear the truth first before we are able to move forward with reconciliation.

Learning and Unlearning

“Know that our communities are healing, and that it’s going to take a long time, and everybody’s at a different place in that healing journey.” - Jesse Benjamin

We at canfitpro had an excellent learning moment when we asked the panelists:

What issues and unique needs do Indigenous People in your community, or elsewhere, have when it comes to accessing fitness and physical activity?

Jesse called us in on how this question was positioned and the power of words. She explained that there aren’t “issues” but there certainly are oppressive obstacles that were, and continue to be, put in front of Indigenous People. The issues are not with Indigenous People, but with colonialism.

In terms of accessing physical activity, the panelists identified a number of needs that non-Indigenous fitness professionals should be sensitive to:

Trauma – Jesse explained that every Indigenous Person has experienced the negative impact of Residential Schools and Indian Day Schools. Either as a survivor themselves or having a parent or grandparent who attended the government and church-run schools. Children being stripped of their culture, language, pride, family, and communities as students at these schools is described as a cultural genocide. That legacy, coupled with the violence, emotional, sexual, and physical abuse the children faced, continues to impact survivors and their ancestors.

Fitness professionals should come with a trauma-informed lens when offering services to Indigenous clients. “There are multiple levels of trauma,” said Jesse. “Know that our communities are healing, and that it’s going to take a long time, and everybody’s at a different place in that healing journey.”

Safe Space – Understand that your worldviews and perspectives may be different from your Indigenous colleagues and clients. Consider how generational trauma and cultural upbringing may impact the level of trust someone has with people outside of their communities. There may potentially be distrust or intimidation if an Indigenous Person has had negative experiences with people outside of their communities. When it comes to working with a trainer, taking a class, or joining a gym Jesse said, “Don’t assume everybody feels the same way you do [about those experiences and places]”.

Natalie advised that offering fitness programming outdoors, like the Bootcamp she facilitates in Thunder Bay, can remove the discomfort of walking into a place where an Indigenous participant may not feel comfortable. Creating a safe space means taking time to build trusting relationships through respectful interactions with the First Nation you want to work with.

Health Concerns – The higher prevalence of certain health concerns in Indigenous populations can also be attributed to the long-term effects of colonialism. Again, through government policies and the uprooting of children from their families, Indigenous People were deprived of their traditional foods and active ways of living on the Land. Jesse mentioned that her personal experience of connecting to her culture was incredibly healing. This is why she is committed to supporting others in cultural engagement as a way to heal and balance themselves.

Infrastructure – Natalie stated that it’s important to recognize that not all communities have the financial capital to fund workout spaces. First Nation communities differ from each other in terms of the access they have to healthcare and fitness. While Patrick works at a state-of-the-art recreation complex at Tsuut’ina Nation, for the First Nations in the Robinson Superior Treaty area, gyms and equipment can be hard to come by. First Nation communities have high rates of poverty and must make decisions about funding healthcare clinics, or other priority services, over fitness facilities. Again, this disparity is an impact of colonialism. Natalie indicated her dislike of the term “funding” as the money paid to Indigenous communities is owed to them for the use of Turtle Island – Land that is Indigenous owned that they are now sharing with settlers.

Holistic Wellness Approach and Mindset – Patrick described how he focuses on wellness programming and lifestyle change, rather than promoting only fitness. “An Elder may not connect with lifting weights,” he said. Patrick spends a lot of time on outreach, which was amplified during the pandemic when so many people were isolated. He also noted that the 7 Chiefs Sportsplex doesn’t necessarily make Tsuut’ina People feel comfortable to engage in the programming, especially if they view it as being created by white people.

Patrick’s efforts have helped community members recognize that physical activity can align with their interests, bring people together, and support healing. He partners with mental health and addictions organizations and initiates hikes as part of mental and physical well-being at Tsuut’ina Nation. Fitness programming that is more holistic and aligned with being active on the Land helps Indigenous People regain pieces of what they lost, in terms of traditional physical activities. Hunting, walking, hiking, and snowshoeing are examples of more traditional ways of moving one’s body.

How Fitness Professionals Can Support Indigenous Communities

Partnerships, collaboration, and connection. It is important for non-Indigenous fit pros to reach out to Indigenous Leaders to respectfully partner together on providing fitness services. Natalie encouraged us to “be a good ally by educating yourself about the community you wish to serve.” She also suggested that if you have access to resources – fitness facilities and equipment – you could offer to share them with Indigenous communities that may be underserved.

Ensure you approach Indigenous stakeholders from a place of taking their lead to guide the arrangement to meet their community’s needs. It is disrespectful for a non-Indigenous individual to assume they know what an Indigenous community needs and wants. You must take the time to ask how you can help, listen to earn trust, and build a reciprocal relationship.

“We were put into this predicament because of colonialism. And that’s what we have to deal with, live with, and navigate,” Natalie reminded us. “But there’s incredible resiliency in our communities and Indigenous heroes who lead fitness and health programming.”

We at canfitpro are grateful to Jesse Benjamin, Patrick Gladue, and Natalie Paavola for taking the time to share their Experiences in Fitness with us. We look forward to continuing to build reciprocal relationships built on respect and trust.


Beth Yarzab is a canfitpro Certification Developer, PRO TRAINER, and proud member of the canfitpro Diversity & Inclusion Committee. Santiago Martinez is canfitpro’s Events Sponsorships and Marketing coordinator, and proud member of the canfitpro Diversity & Inclusion Committee.