Alberta Cree wrestler The Matriarch finds her peace inside the ring
A storage space in north Edmonton opens up into a Monster Pro Wrestling training facility, complete with a wrestling ring.
It's where, on a hot summer day, 36-year-old wrestler Sage Morin, The Matriarch, grapples with her opponent as he manages to twist out of a headlock.
Wrestling has generally been a male-dominated sport, which is why The Matriarch often finds herself facing men.
"Doesn't matter if you're a man or a woman. If you need to be taught a lesson, the Matriarch's the one to do it," Morin says.
During her warm-up, Morin's passion for wrestling is clear to see.
She somersaults and rolls with her male teammates, at one point executing a perfect handstand — toes pointed to the ceiling — and rolling forward back to her feet.
If you need to be taught a lesson, the Matriarch's the one to do it. - Sage Morin
"My goal is to just keep training as hard as I can, to be as best as I can, and to just really bring my game up another level," Morin said in an interview.
Morin began her wrestling career earlier this year, in April, and started competing just one month later.
During Monster Pro Wrestling tours to smaller communities across Alberta and British Columbia, she quickly became a fan favourite.
"It's something that I've really stepped into and I've really enjoyed it," she said.
Morin was introduced to Monster Pro after her two-year-old son, Geo Mounsef, was killed by an SUV on a south Edmonton restaurant patio in 2013.
The Edmonton-based organization was the first of many to hold a community event for Morin and her family.
At that event, Monster Pro gave Morin a belt with Geo's name on it and when she held it up, the crowd chanted his name.
"The honour always goes to Geo, first and foremost, and the strength always comes from that," she said.
Watch The Matriarch in action:
Morin's coach says she was born for wrestling.
"She's just got this bigger-than-life personality," said Sean Dunster, a.k.a. Massive.
"It's almost like she's come and wrapped her arms around the whole crew of Monster Pro wrestling."
Dunster reached out to Morin hoping to involve her in some matches as an MC or a referee.
"She's like, 'I want to wrestle,'" he said. "And she was just all in, right from the beginning."
Morin threw herself into the sport, finding family and support in the organization.
She helps her teammates with their makeup and costumes — and Dunster said she brings in a different aspect of wrestling.
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Representation that's authentic, not exploitative
Morin is from the Saddle Lake Cree Nation in central Alberta, part of Treaty 6.
When she first joined wrestling, she was inspired to create a character that deeply resonated with her and reflected her Indigenous culture.
"I wanted to be a strong female. A powerful leader," she said. "The best leaders that we have in our culture are the matriarchs."
She's been careful in how she represents her culture.
"You'll never catch me in a headdress, you'll never catch me bringing my sacred ceremonial items, my feathers or anything like that," Morin said.
She wanted her representation to be authentic and not exploitative.
"I've done that by bringing my powwow dancers out and bringing Indigenous performers, but also just bringing my own Indigenous flavour," she said.
Morin said her dream is to have an entire crew of Indigenous wrestlers behind her, and to one day be wearing the women's champion belt with pride.
A full-circle moment
Dealing with the loss of her son nearly destroyed her, Morin said.
And almost a decade later, the pain doesn't get easier.
So it felt like a full circle moment for Morin when she stepped into the ring as a wrestler.
Wrestling helped her heal and start to become alive again.
"Throughout everything that I've been through in my life," she said, "the thing I'm really grateful for is wrestling."