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The Greatest Indigenous-Canadian Athletes Day 2: Sharon and Shirley Firth

Zach Friedman


As a part of Radio Western’s Indigenous Awareness Week, the sports department is presenting six stories of the greatest Indigenous-Canadian Athletes. Today, we highlight the story of twin sisters and cross-country skiers Sharon and Shirley Firth.

Sharon and Shirley were born in 1953 in Aklavik, Northwest Territories to a Gwich’in mother and Métis father. Growing up in the Gwich’in First Nation, Sharon and Shirley learned to hunt and trap at a very young age. The Firths acknowledge their time spent hunting and trapping as one of the keys to their successes as cross-country skiers.

In 1967 there was a new ski program developed for Indigenous youth called the Territorial Experimental Ski Training program, founded by French Catholic priest Jean-Marie Mouchet. The program was established to recognize and develop talent in Canada and train the next generation of competitive skiers.

Intending to travel the world, Sharon and Shirley began training and battled through extreme conditions. It was just a year later, in 1968, when Sharon and Shirley competed in their first event at the Canadian Junior Cross-Country Champions, winning bronze and silver, respectively.

From that point on, the landscape of Canadian cross-country skiing would forever change as Sharon and Shirley would dominate the sport in Canada until the 1980s. In that period, Sharon would go on to win 37 medals including 19 gold, 14 silver, and 4 bronze, and Shirley received 42 medals, of which 29 were gold, 10 silver, and 3 bronze. The Firths' domination of the sport nationally led to them representing Canada at the Olympic games four straight times (1972, 76, 80, & 84) the only Canadian women skiers to compete at four straight games. The sisters never reached the podium at the Olympics, however, Sharon in 1972 finished 26th in the women’s 5k race, a Canadian record.

Sharon and Shirley received many awards for their contribution to Canadian sport including, becoming members of the Order of Canada in 1987, an induction to the Canada Ski Museum, the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal in 2002, and the Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012. Sharon and Shirley were also awarded the National Aboriginal Achievement Award in 2005 and 2006 respectively. Lastly, the sisters became the first Indigenous women inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2015.

Upon retiring from skiing, Sharon and Shirley took different paths. Sharon stayed in the Northwest Territories and became a Youth Program Advisor for the territorial government. Sharon in the mid-80s tried to restart the Territorial Experimental Ski Training program – the same program that got the Firths to start cross-country skiing in the first place – but the program was dissolved by the end of the decade.

Shirley moved to France and taught in universities for nearly 20 years, educating students on Dene and Inuit cultures. It was not until 2005 that Shirley returned home. There she would become the Executive Assistant to the Speaker of the NWT Legislative Assembly. Unfortunately, in 2013 Shirley passed away from cancer.

Over their careers, Sharon and Shirley faced many challenges in terms of cultural differences from the rest of the team. Due to their new training regiment, the sisters had to learn new eating habits and a different way of life. Sometimes these challenges caused the sisters not to eat and would often race on empty stomachs. Even returning home throughout their historic careers they felt like outsiders in their community, but the Firths’ successes have inspired Indigenous youth for years and will continue to inspire them for years to come.