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Sharon and Shirley Firth


Shirley and Sharon Firth are twin sisters that hail from the remote township of Aklavik in the Northwest Territories. The twins grew up within the rich culture of the Dene people, and they thrived within this cultural context. Work on the trap line was an important part of the childhood that the girls grew up in. But when a ski program for Indigenous youth in the Northwest Territories was developed, the lives of the two sisters would be changed forever.

In 1967, Shirley and Sharon were only 13 year-old girls when the Territorial Experimental Ski Training program began. The program was designed to develop internationally competitive skiers, while also providing opportunities for the Indigenous youth. The young twins took up the sport and had unprecedented success; they dominated Canadian skiing events in the 1960's and 1970's, held several records, and they competed in four Olympic Winter Games.

The cultural differences the twins had to contend with in their journey to competitive success was striking, and is captured by Sharon when she spoke about the common necessity of food: "We had to learn a whole new way of life, eating habits, being introduced to fast food, which I think is a crime... Sometimes we starved ourselves because we could not eat the food, and we still raced on empty." This is just one example of the types of cultural challenges Indigenous athletes face.

The new cultural context of modern sport success impacted their relationship with their own community. Shirley remembers that when the sisters went home that the people in her own town "seem very strange to us. I guess we strike them as pretty weird too. We've become strangers in our home town." The success of the Firth sisters was extraordinary because they were able to overcome the cultural differences on their way to national success and becoming a shining light for Indigenous youth across the country.

collection of medals won by Firth Twins
Sharon and Shirley Firth won many competitions throughout Canada and North America. They also competed on the World Cup circuit. They were proud representatives of First Nations and Canada on the world scene. Throughout their career they persevered under every condition possible and set the pace of pioneering the sport of cross country skiing in Canada.
Collection: Private Collection: Sharon Firth

race bib Lake Placid 1980
Sharon and Shirley Firth lost their mother in a house fire just before the qualification trials for the 1980 Olympic Winter Games. Faced with the difficult decision whether to compete for a place on the Olympic team or go home, they chose to stay to honour their mother and the values she gave them of fulfilling their dreams and never giving up.
Collection: Private Collection: Sharon Firth

photograph Sharon and Shirley Firth with Father Mouchet
Father Mouchet was an Oblate priest who introduced cross country skiing to the young people in the North to provide motivation, confidence and self-esteem in a modern world. Sharon and Shirley Firth joined the Territorial Experimental Ski Training (TEST) program as teenagers. Their love of the sport and belief in themselves was evident throughout their long career, which included four Olympic Winter Games from 1972 to 1984.
Collection: Private Collection: Sharon Firth

photograph Sharon and Shirley Firth with raised hands
The twin sisters Sharon and Shirley Firth were supportive of each other because of the cultural differences among the rest of the team and the Europeans. They felt that they were "a team within a team". Sharon considers it to have been "an honour and a privilege to carry the beautiful load of representing Canada and First Nations". (quote from interview with Sharon Firth, Canada's Sports Hall of Fame, March 17, 2015)
Collection: Private Collection: Sharon Firth

photograph Sharon and Shirly Firth training on skis
Sharon knew from an early age that she wanted a greater life experience and found that opportunity through cross country skiing. After her retirement from her athletic career she worked with the youth of the NWT. She wanted them to have a similar joy in life and to instill in them the same values that she learned - to persevere, to not be afraid to try anything and to look for the opportunities in life and step up to them.
Collection: Private Collection: Sharon Firth

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