Canadian Sports Legend Waneek Horn-Miller on Indigenous Activism, Her Love of Competition and a Lifetime of Overcoming Challenges
Waneek Horn-Miller is one of the coaches on the new series 'Canada's Ultimate Challenge'. Photo: Courtesy of CBC
If you watched the recently-concluded CBC reality show Canada’s Ultimate Challenge — six teams competed in a country-wide obstacle course, coached by star athletes including Donovan Bailey — you were probably impressed by the very cool coach Waneek Horn-Miller. A water polo champion, sportscaster, motivational speaker and mother of three, she rocks electric Crocs, Mohawk jewelry and a mama-bear energy, equal parts protective and ferocious. Though her team was eliminated in round six, Horn-Miller made sure they walked off arm in arm, heads high. That’s totally in character for her: she’s been overcoming Canada’s ultimate challenges her entire life.
On a windy March morning, over poached eggs and turkey sausage in a Toronto café, Horn-Miller, 47, tells me her story with an upbeat openness, even when the memories are hard. Her mother, Kahn-Tineta Horn, a First Nations activist, divorced her father, George Miller, an academic, while still pregnant.
“My father earned a PhD from Stanford, he’s a smart man, but he didn’t have the capacity to care for us,” Horn-Miller says. “We think he went to a residential school, but he didn’t talk about it. Mohawks don’t like to talk about our traumas. We talk about our wins and strengths. Our attitude is, ‘Why would we give anyone the satisfaction of knowing they hurt us?’”
As a child, Horn-Miller lived in two worlds: on the Kahnawake Mohawk reserve in Quebec and in Ottawa’s tony Glebe neighbourhood. “My mom knew our lives would be hard and harsh but not impossible.” She enrolled her four daughters (Horn-Miller is second youngest) in swimming and running because those sports “weren’t at the mercy of anyone’s judgement. Just us against the clock.”
Horn-Miller loved competing: “It was the one area where no one was making fun of my name or how I looked or how little money we had — that kid racism I faced every day. I was different in how I learned, too. My mother would say, ‘Go to school but don’t get educated — don’t ever take someone else’s opinion and make it your own. The independence of your mind is the most important thing you have.’”
By age 11, Horn-Miller was a provincial swimming champ. In high school she discovered water polo “and that was great,” she says, grinning. “We trained with boys. I really liked boys.”
But at 14, in 1990, her momentum was upended by the Oka crisis, a 78-day standoff between Quebecers who wanted to expand a golf course and Mohawks who were trying to protect sacred land. The police and military descended and suddenly Horn-Miller’s home was an occupied camp and her mother and family friends were armed warriors. On the final day, in September 1990, she got tangled in an altercation while carrying her four-year-old sister. A Canadian soldier stabbed her with his bayonet, dangerously near her heart, and a news photograph of her agonized wail became a symbol of race-based violence for the world.
“When we talk about Oka, we say how we fought off the army off with our fists,” Horn-Miller says. “But it was terrifying. I remember sitting in the bushes every night watching a race riot, a hate crime against us. Being told, ‘Those people want to kill us. They hate us.’ Not for something I’d done, for what I was. I saw adults being racist in a group, and police standing by doing nothing. You don’t go back after that. You never become innocent again. You’ve always seen too much.”
After the cameras were gone, the police harassment continued for two more years. “There was so much unresolved trauma and anger in our community,” Horn-Miller adds. “After that I wasn’t just playing sports. I was getting revenge, every single game.”
At the Pan Am Games in 1999, her water polo team won gold, and at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 she was the first Mohawk woman to compete for Canada (her team finished fifth). In the run-up to Sydney, Horn-Miller was in another iconic photo, the cover of Time magazine, but this one she posed for. nude. Skin glowing, she has a feather in her slicked-back hair, a small tattoo on her chest, a water polo ball in her arms and a defiant look in her eyes.
“I thought it was a great opportunity to promote my sport,” she says. “But my mum said, ‘No matter what the photographer says, do not smile. Look directly into the lens and make sure the world knows that you are in control and determined.’ For so long, in stories like Pocahontas — which is probably the first story of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman and Girls — our women have been portrayed as things to be used, abused and discarded.”
Her Native community loved the photo, but white feminists accused her of selling her sexuality. “If you see that only as a sexualized image, you’ve completely bought into the patriarchal view of women,” Horn-Miller says. “I was 165 pounds of pure muscle. There was nothing wrong with my body. My body was strong. Before missionaries and the government got their hands on us, Native people were comfortable in our skin and our strength. The impact of religion and colonization made us ashamed. I wanted people to have another image of us.”
After the Olympics, Horn-Miller did not shy away from battles. She and some teammates had their coaches investigated for sexism and harassment. Six months later, Water Polo Canada fired her. She argued that their reason, “team cohesion,” was a euphemism for racism and hired Clayton Ruby (the renowned civil rights attorney, now deceased). Though she didn’t return, the players and coaches were ordered to undergo cultural and Aboriginal sensitivity training. “I was celebrated by my sport, but the minute I questioned it, I was no longer the good little Indian,” Horn-Miller says now.
In 2014, she successfully sued the Kahnawake Mohawk Council over its “marry out, stay out” policy (her husband, who is white, would not have been allowed to live in the territory). In 2017, she served as the director of community engagement for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, but stepped down after activists deemed the inquiry misguided. She did a master’s degree in Indigenous studies and kinesiology at UBC.
In March 2019, Horn-Miller recreated her iconic pose for a new Time cover. She was 43 and had given birth three times (her children are now 12, nine and six). Her skin is a little less elastic, but her body and her gaze still radiate strength. And this time, the Canadian flag in the background was imprinted with the Indian Act.
“I was trying to transmit that I’ve come full circle to free myself,” Horn-Miller says. “I don’t think Canadians understand what it’s like to be an Indigenous person and have everything about yourself legislated. Including how Native you are. Imagine what that does to a person who’s trying to determine their own future, who they are and how they want to represent themselves and how they feel about themselves.”
During an episode of Canada’s Ultimate Challenge in a Kelowna vineyard, Horn-Miller wouldn’t even let herself be filmed drinking a glass of wine. The other coaches didn’t think twice about it, but she knew it would feed stereotypes.
“I was raised at the knee of an activist,” she says. “When my mother did it, it got you killed, or put in prison, or your kids taken away. When I did it, it got me kicked off my team. Now it’s almost a job title, which I see as a great evolution. If you have the capacity to make something better, make it better. If you have to say hard truths, say them.
“I didn’t think I’d survive the end of my sporting career,” she continues, on a roll now. “It was so much of my life, my identity. But your brain, and what you do to make society better — you can do that until the day you die.”
She’s currently writing a book for Harper Collins with Kelly Boutsalis on the Indigenous concept of success. “Why not?” she says with a laugh. “I’m a walking piece of history.”
What may be Horn-Miller’s ultimate, ultimate challenge, however, lies ahead. Her youngest child was diagnosed with autism at age four and “there’s a huge gap in the Indigenous world around that, considering the plethora of emergencies that are ongoing,” she says. “It’s such an emotional thing to be the parent of a special needs child, it’s so hard on your heart.”
For the first three months after her daughter was diagnosed, Horn-Miller cried every day. “I’d hold her and cry. One day she popped her head up, grabbed my face and said, ‘Mummy, I’m going to be okay.’” Horn-Miller phoned her mother, who said, “Creation doesn’t make mistakes. Your daughter chose you for a reason.”
I can see Horn-Miller’s activism being engaged as we speak. “Too many Indigenous people don’t have the voice I have,” she says. “In fact, many Native parents won’t get their children tested. They think we have enough stigmas, the last thing their child needs is more marginalization. But children who are undiagnosed get labeled with ‘behaviour problems.’ They’re fulfilling the prophesy that we’re problem kids. And what does it mean to the addictions and incarcerations issues in our communities? I want to start a national Indigenous parents support network, to help with things like sports, summer camps, respite care.
“I feel maybe this is my reason for being,” she sums up. “With everything I’ve been through, all the battles I fought, if I can figure out a way to help the parents in my community and help these children, that would be my greatest accomplishment.”