Organized sport bringing Indigenous students back to school in northern Alberta

Organized sport bringing Indigenous students back to school in northern Alberta

When Danielle Cardinal started at the reserve school at Peerless Lake First Nation, she rarely stayed late.

Now, as she finishes Grade 12, the 19-year-old regularly finds herself in the gymnasium after class.

Cardinal plays for the school's senior girls volleyball team, which became part of a formal league this year under a joint partnership of the Kitaskinaw Tribal Council and the Northland School Division (KTC-NSD).

"Everyone plays after school," she explained. "There's opportunities now to go other places."

Peerless Lake is an isolated community in central northern Alberta. The hamlets of Red Earth Creek and Loon River First Nation are about an hour away. Whitefish Lake First Nation is two hours away and the hamlet of Grouard is two and a half. 

Having a sports league in which the students can compete makes a difference when it comes to engagement in school, said phys-ed teacher, Chelsea Cattroll.

"It's been a great attendance initiative," she said. "It's brought a lot of kids, say, who weren't attending, back into the school."

KTC-NSD sports launched in September 2016. It brings together 10 rural schools, mostly comprised of First Nation and Métis students, for league games in tournament-style competition. 

Around 250 students compete in cross-country running, dodge ball, floor hockey, volleyball, basketball, horseshoes and archery. 

Sparking school spirit

Deen Flett, hired to co-ordinate the program, said a lack of school spirit which appeared at the outset to be one of the biggest hurdles, has turned into its biggest strength.

"The first thing I thought was that these schools need a logo. They need a logo. When our Aboriginal youth are lost, they fall through the cracks. They need to belong somewhere," Flett said. 

He said the students now have a greater understanding and appreciation of their community. 

"The communities are absolutely just stoked because they're so proud of who they are and where they come from," Flett said. 

"They're starting to order their uniforms — the whole school is ordering apparel."

Flett runs the events as if the students are competing at the highest level and said enthusiasm is growing.

Play has been formalized with referees and scorecards. He kicks things off with upbeat music and takes on the role of an announcer throughout the tournaments.

Flett, from the Gift Lake Métis Settlement, said he's so blown away by the natural ability and skills of some of the students and that it's hard not to share their excitement. 

"Some of the talent I've seen in these kids — wow, it's so amazing. Some of these kids have a chance to go to university, college, with their sports," he said. "My job is to inspire them and get them there to the next level." 

'It gives us another outlet'

Atikameg School principal Laura Okemaw said the emphasis on organized sports appears to be generating excitement throughout the community and in neighbouring communities.

When the school gym was open two weekends ago, 14 people — not just students — spent most of Saturday in there scrimmaging. On Sunday, twice as many people showed up. 

"One of the students said: 'This is very good that the gym is open. It give us another outlet to be involved in rather than walking around and getting in trouble,' " Okemaw said.

Another conversation with a student and her mother reinforced the need for the Atikameg School to keep the gym open after hours, Okemaw said. 

"She was wanting to be in the gym after school because she says that's the only thing she's got going for her right now," Okemaw said. 

She's been getting texts to her phone asking for open gym nights — and now, she is keeping the gym open until 10 p.m.

Okemaw, from Sucker Creek First Nation, knows first-hand the role sports can play in students' lives. Growing up, she played volleyball and basketball. 

"I think it gave me the push to be able to go out there and go on with my career and it gave me the strength in being able to stand up against adversity — and I think it's important for the students here as well," she said. 

roberta.bell@cbc.ca

@roberta__bell