Sharon Anne Firth

is a member of the Gwich’in First Nation. A four-time Olympian in cross-country skiing, Sharon and her twin sister, Shirley, were the first Indigenous female athletes to represent Canada at the Winter Olympic Games.



Sharon Anne Firth shares her experiences of attending a residential school, including the mistreatment she endured and the emotional toll of being separated from her siblings.

Sharon Anne Firth: We were wealthy in many ways, but poor in many ways. We didn't really count on the dollars to determine whether we were rich or poor. But we looked at how the dad, the fathers in all these families, how his skills were with hunting and trapping. That determined how rich and how wealthy you were. Because, like I said, we didn't have money back then. But we had three square meals. We didn't have strawberries and that kind of fruits, but we did have cranberries, yellow berries, and blueberries. That was our rich source of vitamin C that kept us going through the winter. Our culture, in the fall time, all families got together, and we'd pick berries like there was no tomorrow. And that was our source of fruit for the winter. And of course, we had lots of fish, and we had caribou, and moose, and rabbits. When we first entered the residential school, they stripped us of all our traditional clothing and made us put on uniforms. It is just like... We all looked the same. It wasn't... I didn't feel good in it. Every time I was dressed, I would cry, because that's not how I looked, and that's not how I felt comfortable with, especially with the parkas. Because my mom made us beautiful, fancy parkas for the winter. And when they made us put on these horrible-looking winter coats, all I could remember is crying, because that wasn't me. It was like my identity was taken away. Even though I had my twin sister, because we used to, at nighttime especially, we used to go sleep with each other. Because that was our comfort, and that was what held us together. When the supervisor would come around and see us in bed together, they'd beat us, and put us in different rooms. But as to... people we met from different communities, that was our family. Because we were all basically in the same boat. Some were treated very well, and others were not treated well at all. Stringer Hall was for Protestants, and Grollier Hall was for the Catholics. And there was an utilidor that separated us. And we were not allowed to play with one another, even though we had relatives in Grollier Hall. We couldn't go visit them, and they couldn't go visit us. Also, in Stringer Hall, we had the junior dorm, the senior dorm for girls and boys. And then... So when my brothers were on the other side of the residential school, we just couldn't go visit them. So the only time really that we could see one another was at meals. So, Shirley and I, and my other brothers and sisters, we would volunteer to help gather plates and clean up. Then when we went by our brothers, we could say, "Hi," "Good morning," or whatever. But it was really a separation where we really lost touch as a family. And those were really sad days, because... You know, I had older brothers. And I loved my brothers. And we couldn't talk to them. That was a real separation and a real... I would say that it really destroyed my family.

It Wasn’t About Me Anymore

1 min 5 s

Sharon Anne Firth talks about the difficult task of representing Indigenous people on the world stag...

Sharon Anne Firth: Because sport, although it's your way to prove yourself as an athlete, and to... live that beautiful life, going to all these hot places in the world, being on the world stage, and being there representing your people... Because I felt that after I went to my very first Olympics, it wasn't about me anymore. It was about how we represented Indigenous people across the country, and especially women. So, it's not as rosy and as beautiful as people think it is, because we had to stand up to so many horrible things that could have happened to us. But like I mentioned before, I had that solid background. Shirley had that solid background. And that's what planted us and helped us to move forward to who we are today.

Proud Olympian

1 min 9 s

Sharon Anne Firth reflects on the pride and excitement she felt when she competed at the Olympics in...

Sharon Anne Firth: We did something that was unheard of, you know, as young Native kids, and going... Like, the whole world would see us. And not only that, but we wanted our parents, and our cousins and our... our... people we went to school with, our communities, to see us representing them. So, it was very, very exciting for us. Also, with that team that we had there, like most Olympic teams had their full support. And with us, we didn't have support. We had us. So, for example, when the boys went out skiing or preparing for those races, us girls were there helping them timing and giving them drinks, you know. And then, when we raced, they did the same for us. So, we were a complete unit, and we really learned team spirit at that time because we worked together as a whole.

Treated Like Royalty Abroad

2 min 20 s

Sharon Anne Firth describes the warm welcome she and her sister received while travelling throughou...

Sharon Anne Firth: Well, for one thing, cross-country skiing was not part of our culture. We had the endurance, and that's part of our culture. You know, walking long distances and being outside. So, when we went to Europe, like, all of a sudden there is these Indian kids, and they were so fascinated by Indians. They compared it with the cowboys and Indians in paint and all that. That wasn't part of our culture. That was more southern. But whenever... Like, for example, when we went to our very first World Juniors in Austria, we were only 16 years old. And... The people just welcomed us, and they would actually come and touch us to make sure we were real. Then, when we went to Czechoslovakia, the year the country was invaded by the Russians, again... the Czechoslovakians were so honoured to have us there that they said, you know, these girls-- our team was like royalty, we have Indian blood running through our veins. And I thought that was so touching. But they were very hospitable to us, very welcoming. They treated us like royalties. And speaking of royalty, when we went to Norway and Sweden, the kings of those countries they were very... very... supportive of their cross-country team. So, they were there at the races. In fact, the king of Norway He invited Shirley and I to come and see him. That was like, an honour we couldn't ever believe, because here we are, these Indian girls, meeting royalty. And how do you stand tall, knowing that you're from at home, and again representing your people to royalty? And being at your best because they loved us, and they were so honoured for us to be in their country.

Double Standards

2 min 10 s

Sharon Anne Firth talks about the double standards and prejudices she experienced as an Indigenous p...

Sharon Anne Firth: Even in Europe, when we used to go to... We would have our World Cup races, and after every World Cup race, there was some function going on that we had to be there to pay tribute to our sponsors, and all that sort of thing. And there was so much partying going on. I used to cry and I thought, you know, "What's the difference between white people being drunk and Native people being drunk? How come we were put down so badly?" And even though we weren't doing it, we were still put in that category. And I couldn't understand why we were such bad people. Because that's how they made us feel, we were so bad people. There was drunks on the streets, and they were Indian, so they're bad people. On the other hand, you had the white people that are also drinking, and they're drunk. And they used to touch us and want to dance with us. And I'd get so livid. I would hang on to Shirley, and say, "Shirley, please don't let me go." If you're going dancing with this person, I'm going to be right there with you, because we needed to protect one another." Then, also, back to when we'd travel and we'd see Native people on the streets and they were drunk, and our team members would say, "Oh, those Indians. They're just drunks." And I couldn't understand why. But once I realized what residential school had done to us, then it made sense that these people were damaged so bad that they were using alcohol to cover their pain. And it's no different today. There's so many on the streets that are in such pain. We're told to get over it. You can't get over it, you know? So I carry that pain with them, because I know that I've done amazing things in my life that I'm so proud of, and if it wasn't for these people, I don't think I would have handled it myself.

Life After Skiing

3 min 32 s

Sharon Anne Firth reflects on the challenges and uncertainties she faced after retiring from competi...

Sharon Anne Firth: When we were racing, we started off with nothing. We didn't have money. And we traveled with no money. How did we do it? I don't know. But, 20 years of representing the country, and with very little... financial support. I mean, we got our travel paid for. We got our meals paid for. We got our sponsors for our clothing and ski equipment. So, that way we were covered. But when I finished skiing, I didn't have any money. You know? And I didn't have an education, because we had to make a choice. We'd either get an education, or we'd quit skiing. And that was put forward by our American coach, at that time. So, when I retired in 1985, the spring of '85, I thought, "Okay, what am I going to do now? Where am I going to go? What's going to happen to Sharon Anne Firth?" You know, and... I thought, "If I stayed down in southern Canada..." There's so much prejudice in the province of Alberta. And I thought, "Well, I can't live here, so I'm going home." And I didn't know what home would be like, because of the amazing things that I did in life and how will my people accept me back? So, I went up there one summer as a summer student, which I wasn't a student. So, the government hired me at this summer job working with youth. And... So, when I went up there, I really opened my eyes as to how our people were living, how they were surviving on the land, because the land was still... that's our bread and butter, right there. And... People started asking me about my life, what I did in my life, and I had so much to share. So, I thought, "Well, this is the place for me." And... It was very frightening for me to go back to my hometown of Inuvik because, like the saying goes, you're not accepted in your hometown. So, I had to really build relationships. And I really had to build confidence with my own people that, "I'm still the same Sharon Anne Firth that was born December 31, 1953, 10 minutes before midnight." The only difference from that time to now is that I learned to work with people, I learned to know my strengths and my weaknesses, and how I can apply that in my everyday life. And sometimes with... with... being in the public eye, it's not always the best. But that's how I was able to expose our people, and our culture, and the beautiful minds that are out there. Because there are so many brilliant people in the North, and there's so much talent in the North, with our young Native athletes, that nothing's being done about it. So I'm very fortunate that I took advantage of my situation because it was an opportunity of a lifetime that I have no regrets at all.

Sport Remains Inaccessible to Indigenous . . .

1 min 53 s

Sharon Anne Firth talks about the lack of opportunities for Indigenous youth to participate equitab...

Sharon Anne Firth: I think Shirley and I were trailblazers in that. Because you know, prior to being on Canada's national team, there was no woman, we didn't have a woman's team ever. So, we created that. And... Like, I would look all over the world for Indigenous athletes. I didn't find any. You know? There were hockey players, but they never spoke out about being Indigenous. Whereas, we were telling everybody, "Yes, this is who we are." Also, when we got inducted into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame, there was only Alwyn Morris before us, and Shirley and I. So, where are these Native people? Why are sports not open to them? Why are they not in mainstream sports? But we were. So, again, it takes strong people or strong women like us to stand up for what we believed in. And then, also, I had the opportunity to go to many reserves in Northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and I was so sad to see how poor our people are, and how there's no hope for them. So, what's the difference between what we did and what they can't do? So, that was a real struggle for me, but that's how society is in our country. There's no justice. And... We're so poor. So, how do we fix that? How do we help our young people today to believe that they could do things within themselves, that they don't have to let the prejudice tear them down.