Michael Linklater

  

Maria Linklater’s memory is incredible. The date rolls off her tongue: Oct. 7, 1982 at 2:30 a.m. She describes the way the train came to a stop in Thunder Bay, Ont. She remembers the way the white smoke billowed from the stack, but what she remembers the most is the way she felt.“About two hours before, it felt like flying. I didn’t have any feeling in my feet. All I had was a one-track mind to get to the train station.”She and her husband Walter were waiting to pick up baby Michael and to raise him as their own.Maria went through great lengths for this. After Maria’s sister gave up her children to adoption or foster care, she had been tirelessly searching for her nieces and nephews — she scratched her contact information on bathroom walls and left notes on the Greyhound busses, “just in case.”She found addresses for adoption agencies in the United States and wrote to them.One day, Maria’s niece called from a home for unwed mothers, all the way from Trenton, N.J. She told Maria she wanted to give up her baby for adoption.“I told her, ‘Don’t give up your baby. I will raise your baby and you’ll be proud of your baby,’ ” explains Maria.Thirty-one years and a move to Saskatchewan later, Michael Linklater has got used to running. He runs, hard, up and down the basketball court. He runs after his five young children. He used to consistently run to and from Mount Royal High School, when kids called him Forrest Gump. The name works two ways — when Michael was a toddler, he had knock-knees and wore casts until the day he decided to scrape them off in the bathtub.Today, Michael is running again — he’s running late. When he looks through the window of a downtown coffee shop, he smiles. (If you know Michael, you know it’s a prize-winning, ear-to-ear, dimples-and-all smile.) He waves and hurries into the café. He’s dressed neat in a sharp brown sweater that’s still damp from the rain and his long hair is skilfully braided. He carries a green Gatorade bottle. He sits down and leans far across the small table to say his story starts long before he was born.Michael’s mother made a deal with the Creator. She terribly regretted a previous abortion and promised to keep the child if she were to get pregnant again — no matter her condition. She struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, went to residential school and was a product of the “sixties scoop,” a now discredited effort to place aboriginal children in non-aboriginal foster or adoptive homes.When Michael was born in Trenton, N.J., the odds were against him. Both his grandparents died of alcoholism. When he grew up, his best friend Kevin Moccasin was murdered during a fight. His only sibling — a half-brother — was beat to death over a bottle of alcohol. Michael discovered alcohol was the common denominator in these instances, so when he was in Grade 6, Michael made a pact with himself to never experiment with drugs or alcohol. At 31 years old, he can still proudly say he’s never tried either. Not even once.“I did it for our people so they had somebody to look up to … now people can’t say all Indians are drunks.”

 

He’d heard countless other stereotypes of his people and he wanted to dismantle them all. He wanted to prove those people wrong. He wanted to succeed. When Michael has an idea, he makes a point of saying “I am” instead of “I will.”“I had this little fire burning inside my chest. And every time somebody told me I couldn’t do something, I turned that word into a log or a piece of wood and I just put it on my fire. Soon enough I had enough doubters and non-believers and haters; I had this raging fire inside to succeed.”It worked. After picking up a basketball for the first time in Grade 4, Michael set three goals for himself: to play basketball professionally (he played for IBL’s Edmonton Energy), at the university level (he did so on various teams), and, while discussing his basketball career, he realizes something. He’s currently completing the final goal he set for himself as a young boy: to play for team Canada.He’s part of a four-man team which qualified for the 3x3 world tour tournament. Since his team is the only one from Canada to qualify “we are officially team Canada,” he says proudly.The team travelled to Istanbul earlier this month for the tournament and made it to the quarter finals.Since the day Michael arrived by a choo-choo train (hence his nickname Chooch), he’s called Maria and Walter his mom and dad. When he was 18, he legally changed his last name to match theirs. (He’s never met his birth dad. His birth mom contacts Michael after she’s been drinking, and he tells her to call when she’s sober. She rarely does.) Maria remembers Michael has always been busy, strong-willed and generous. She recalls a time when Michael won a traditional dance competition and gave half of his cash prize to an elder spectator.Upon arriving home, Michael also gave money to Maria and Walter and other young kids living in their home.“I taught him to be kind,” Maria says. Michael says it was important he had two parents to call mom and dad who were home every night. Maria and Walter are respected elders in the community and he says he learned from watching them put others before themselves.“It inspired me to grow up and help people in any way that I could,” adding that became another goal.Today, he’s a dream broker for Sask Sport Inc. He works out of different elementary schools connecting inner-city youth to extracurricular activities. He says it’s a rewarding job being the “middleman between being a service provider and a family.” He also regularly gives motivational speeches to youth sharing his story and teaching them the importance of culture, confidence and living a respectable lifestyle.“Once you start believing in yourself it doesn’t matter if people doubt you,” he tells youth.Eugene Arcand has crusaded for Aboriginal peoples in a variety of capacities, particularly in promoting First Nations sport and recreation — he is a member of the Saskatchewan Indian Sports Hall of Fame and recognizes an athlete and a leader when he sees one. He remembers reading about Michael during Michael’s high school basketball days and wanted to meet him. At first, he observed Michael on the court.

 

“He was a leader on the court and he had exceptional skills. Off the court, he was also a leader by example and practising a positive lifestyle,” he says. Arcand, who also calls Michael “Chooch,” often asks him to speak to aboriginal youth at special seminars.He says it only takes about half an hour until they gravitate to him: “By the end, the young people have a new hero.” He says he believes the Creator puts gifted people on Mother Earth to set an example. He sees Michael as one of those people.“He’ll be a leader when the time comes. He’s a leader right now … but at some point in time I can see him being a mandated leader of our people.”Michael fidgets when he talks. He grabs the Gatorade water bottle and squirts water into his mouth as if he’s on the basketball court. He’s aware that he shifts his weight back and forth. He also had a difficult time concentrating in school; perhaps it’s due to his mother’s drinking while he was in the womb, he explains. It took him an extra year to complete high school and he says it’s likely he wouldn’t have gone on to post-secondary school if it wasn’t for basketball. He first went to a college in North Dakota, followed by one year at the University of Saskatchewan and two years in Alberta. He then went back to the U of S for his fifth and final year. During his first season at the U of S, he and then-coach Greg Jockims butted heads.“I voiced my opinion … a lot,” Michael laughs.“He taught me a lot how to manage great athletes and strong personalities,” says Jockims. “It was a big moment (in Michael’s final year) when we both got on the same page and we understood that we both wanted the same thing.”As captain, Michael led the Huskies basketball team to its first ever national championship. Jockims says in addition to always pushing himself to be the very best, his leadership was his biggest strength. He says that Michael had a “fatherly” influence on the team and his “warrior mentality” had others following him. Not to mention his technical skills — his “tenacious” defending and “savvy” decision making.“He was managing four kids at the time we were playing … he was able to keep all the balls in the air,” says Jockims of Michael’s numerous responsibilities. “The respect that his teammates had for him grew as a result of all the things he had to control and deal with.”Now, Michael is working with a team creating a basketball program called Prime Basketball. He wants to make sure everyone feels included to join, because as successful as Michael has been as an athlete, he admits that he dealt with racism in sport, not to mention everywhere else.Even now, he says he has his appearance to keep in mind.“… As sad as that sounds, somebody will think I’m just there to steal or whatever stereotype or scenario it may be.” It doesn’t just stop at his clothing. “…if there’s, God forbid, a strand (of his braid) out of place, it looks like I don’t care of myself. It’s a sad truth. They may look at me differently, which I’ve come to understand and accept.”

 

Maria and Walter made a point of introducing aboriginal culture, customs and traditions to their children at a young age. Michael says he’s always had a strong identity and is proud to be aboriginal. A big part of that is his hair. Michael has never cut his hair; he wears his long braid with pride. There was a time when he wanted to cut his hair; having your braid pulled and being called a girl is tough.“But as a young boy, having long hair and a braid teaches you a lot — humility, respect and pride. And compassion as well, because you know how it feels to get teased.”He says he’s proud of his two boys who are going through that right now. Amari, 9, is beginning to understand, and he’s still working with Dream, 5, teaching him what it means to be a boy with a braid.Michael teaches his five children to believe in yourself, stay true to yourself and most importantly, to have a voice. He smiles often when he talks of his children (his eldest isn’t blood-related, but he’s raised him as his own), and looks nervous when he talks about his seven -year-old daughter starting competitive dance. He and the mother of his children are no longer together and he understands it’s difficult for his children. That’s why it’s vital for him to spend as much time with them as he can.While he says his children are his biggest accomplishment, there’s one more thing he’d like to do: He wants to go back to school and get his master’s degree in Native Studies so he can continue to educate others about his culture.He looks up to the ceiling and his words come out slowly. “I feel that I’ve been paving the way for up and coming aboriginals. I think I’ve dealt with enough in the sports field and I’ve made deep enough roots in non-aboriginal communities that they see we have respectable people. We are very humble and we have a lot to offer.“I’ve broken down every single stereotype just being me.

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