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Canada basketball
Matt Johnson

Living Skies Indigenous Basketball League leading the way in Saskatchewan

Like many strategic plans in our sport, Living Skies Indigenous Basketball League was brainstormed while sitting down, huddled up around a white board.

After learning of a funding opportunity, Mike Tanton and Mason Medynski outlined what exactly they wanted a basketball league for Saskatchewan Indigenous youth to look like. Alongside Tracey Bert, who then worked with the Aboriginal Friendship Centres of Saskatchewan, Tanton and Medynski brought to fruition a 20-year vision of having a league like this in the province.

Founded in 2020, the league’s programming began in the height of the pandemic in the form of socially distanced camps. Today, the league has exceeded more than 1,700 registrants and is now seeing day-one athletes graduate from and transition into a coaching role.

Perhaps most importantly, Living Skies Indigenous Basketball League is completely free of charge to athletes. The league also provides food and essential needs such as soap and toothpaste, while covering all transportation and hotel costs at tournaments.

“We wanted to see a league that could have young, Indigenous athletes playing — regardless of their skill level,” said Tanton. “This was to get more kids to play, and more kids involved in the game and just more opportunities for underserved populations.”

As a young Metis man, Tanton recognized at an early age a gap in programming in urban centres versus the rest of Saskatchewan, and even more so when it came to Indigenous youth. 

A play on the Saskatchewan mantra ‘Land of the Living Skies’, the league’s name is not the only thing reflective of the province. Living Skies Indigenous Basketball League operates nearly province-wide with three divisions spanning various regions including in isolated communities such as Buffalo Narrows, Ile-a-la Crosse, La Loche and La Ronge. 

“I love seeing people coming together from all over the province, and coming together with a common cause,” said Tanton.

The league wrapped up its 2023 spring season this past weekend, with nearly 300 senior division athletes descending on Martensville, Sask. for provincial championships.

On top of on-court programming, the league incorporates workshops like résumé building and interview skills, as well as cultural education sessions which can include elder and knowledge keeper visits.

When it comes down to it, for Tanton it’s all about getting more people involved. With support from the Government of Canada, the league focuses on participation from within Saskatchewan’s Indigenous community, but is open to all athletes no matter the background — something he believes is critical.

“It shows that you can build those relationships across cultures and change views and stereotypes that people may have — in all kinds of ways. It’s just beneficial for building a stronger community and showing appreciation and understanding for differences. Diversity is a way that builds the community up in a good way where everyone feels involved,” said Tanton.

“Using sport for reconciliation is always good.”

And when it comes to Indigenous sport in Saskatchewan, few are more well versed than Tanton. He is set to represent the province as its chef de mission at the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) 2023 this summer in Halifax — a role he also held at the Games in 2017.

Tanton has been a part of every NAIG since their instalment in 1990, beginning as a spectator, before transitioning into player, coach, and coordinator roles, before ultimately taking his chef de mission position at the last held Games in Toronto. This summer, his experience at the Games will come full circle with his daughter Willow set to star for Saskatchewan and following in his footsteps onto the court for Saskatchewan — something he admits is “just unreal.”

He expects nearly half of the Saskatchewan’s basketball teams at the Games to be comprised of players who have played in the Living Skies Indigenous Basketball League.

It’s programming such as Living Skies that Tanton wonders how it could've impacted his own life if it was accessible during his early adolescence. 

Tanton moved out of the house he grew up in when he was in Grade 6, and was without a home and didn’t end up playing basketball until Grade 10. In spite of that, he still went on to play at the postsecondary level with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies. 

Yet it’s through his turbulent times that he used the game of basketball as a vehicle to help him on his journey in life — times he also cites as helping him develop the leadership traits that are so essential in his present-day role with the league.

“[Sports were] integral to my personal success in dealing with the struggles I faced as a young Indigenous person. It kept me out of trouble. It kept me out of gang life,” said Tanton. 

“I just wanted other Indigenous people that were struggling to know that there’s people out there succeeding, and there’s people that want you to succeed. The best way for us to help people is through sport and having the game of basketball teach kids. It’s something that’s an easier sell sometimes.” 

Paige Crozon, who balances her role on Canada’s 3x3 Women’s National Team while serving as the manager of the Living Skies Basketball League, has seen first hand the impact that Tanton has. 

“He’s so passionate about what he does and making a positive impact on the community. He’s so good at building relationships with coaches and athletes and being able to find ways to inspire them,” said Crozon. “You can just really tell the athletes value his leadership and look up to him as a role model — they flock to him.”

Tanton admits he’s extremely fortunate to have had Crozon by his side running the operations since 2020.

“It’s so fulfilling to be a part of it, because you see the impacts it’s able to have. You see it in the youth and their joy and excitement to be able to come and participate every single week,” said Crozon, who describes her decision to come on board as one of the best decisions of her life. 

Together, the hope is for the Living Skies Indigenous Basketball League to continue to grow. Specifically, Crozon and Tanton want to reach more youth across the province, while also looking at one day adding programming beyond Saskatchewan’s borders.

“I always want to ask ‘What’s next?’ said Tanton.

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