We the northwest: How First Nations kids are finding their way on the basketball court

For many Indigenous youth in northwestern Ontario, basketball is not just a sport — it’s an open door
By Jon Thompson - Published on May 24, 2017
Kynsey Bluebird is just one of a growing number of Indigenous youth in northwestern Ontario who’ve made basketball a big part of their lives. (Jon Thompson)



With this story, TVO.org is pleased to launch our northwestern bureau and introduce Jon Thompson, our new Thunder Bay-based journalist. We look forward to bringing you stories about the issues affecting northwestern Ontario and its diverse population, and to working in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology to expand our current affairs coverage in the region. This local hub is the first of four that TVO will establish in the province.

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THUNDER BAY — Every day through the winter, Kerry Davis snowmobiled five kilometres across Lac Seul from Sioux Lookout to play basketball at Pelican Falls First Nations High School. Then, when the ice started to break up, she had to drive around the lake. But it was worth the trip, she says: the game is better out there.

Davis leads the Queen Elizabeth District High School team in Sioux Lookout, but after class lets out, you can find her at the live-in school across the lake, which accommodates students from 24 remote First Nations communities.

“At Queen Elizabeth,” she says, “they’re afraid of the ball. Here, they’re not. Here, they know each other. Them, being away from home, their family is their school so they know each other. They know which way to pass the ball.”

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In April, Davis was selected to be an alternate on the women’s team Ontario will take to the North American Indigenous Games, which take place this summer in Toronto.

“I’m proud to represent my town and my community” — Lac Seul First Nation. “A lot of people from here don’t have this great of an opportunity.”

Basketball has never been popular in remote First Nations communities, where hockey and volleyball dominate. But that’s starting to change, as a handful of teachers give a generation of Indigenous youth the opportunity to find themselves in the game.

Pelican Falls phys-ed teacher Shawn Hordy built his school’s basketball program from scratch when he moved there in 2010. Since then, he’s given interested students their own balls to take home with them over the summer. Those students have brought the sport to their communities, and it seems to have stuck: when the Indigenous Games held tryouts in Pikangikum First Nation for the first time this winter, 40 students chose basketball (compared with 80 for volleyball).

“I’m starting to see a younger generation of students coming up and they actually know basketball,” Hordy says. “I’d like to attribute it to some of the senior players going home and trying to get their brothers and sisters involved.”

Finding home

Checotah Powless drives the lane into the paint with natural vision. Now in Grade 10, he moved with his mother from Oklahoma City to a remote reserve in northwestern Ontario at age 11, when his parents separated. Confronted by major drug and alcohol problems in his new community, he became withdrawn. Hordy says discovering basketball at Pelican Falls changed Powless’s life.

“Every chance he gets during the day, whether it’s break or in between classes or lunch, he’s on the outdoor court or in the gym shooting hoops, tying to get better,” Hordy says, adding that basketball has driven Powless to improve academically, too. “He was always one who struggled with his marks, but when it comes to basketball season, you see him buckling down and really working hard so he can continue to play in the season.”

For Powless, basketball is an escape, and the court is a place where he can feel in control of his life. “When I’m at home, I can’t really do much like I do here,” he says. “There’s so much bad stuff surrounding me at home and it’s hard.

“It’s a different place out there for me on the court. When I’m on the court, I feel like I can escape from everything, be me, and do whatever I want.”

The Pelican Falls team made it to the semifinals of its 11-team regional high school league — which is spread out over 90,000 square kilometres — for the first time this season. Hordy’s proud of the impact the program has had on students, but basketball can’t keep the region’s pervasive social challenges entirely at bay.

Coaches have to rebuild their rosters every year; sometimes as few as two players return to the team, and students constantly dip on and off campus. Some get homesick, while others move on to schools or jobs in faraway cities.

Alisha Kakekayash-Rae found her zone on Pelican Falls’ basketball court in Grade 9. Two years later, she moved home to Round Lake First Nation to give birth to a son, Javier Oombash. Then, when her son was eight months old, Kakekayash-Rae registered for Grade 11 at Thunder Bay’s all-Indigenous Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School.

City life shook her academic focus: her grades plummeted, and she didn’t feel challenged on the basketball court. “I was distracted by alcohol,” she says. “On reserves, they don’t tolerate alcohol, and to get it on the reserve costs a lot of money. Once you get into the city, it’s cheaper. When I went to DFC, I got distracted by drinking a lot. I didn’t show up to school sometimes because I’d be too sick.”

She moved 400 kilometres back to Pelican Falls after just one semester in Thunder Bay, ready to hit the books and get back to the hoop. Basketball helps her focus, she says. “It keeps me from missing Javier too much and wanting to go home.”

The Aboriginal Sport and Wellness Council of Ontario’s new Far North Strategy will help First Nations communities as they develop sports programs of their choice. Tania Cameron, author of the strategy, believes youth engagement will continue to drive basketball’s growth.

“It’s relatively cheap, it’s easy to learn, and it’s easily applicable in communities,” she says. “If you get the kids to know the game when they’re seven to 12, by the time they have to leave their communities to go to high school, they’re going with a base set of skills and hopefully, a love for the game. This is long-term development.”

Nowhere has Indigenous basketball grown as quickly as it has in Kenora, under Cameron’s leadership.

In February 2015, Cameron used social media to generate interest in sending a basketball team from Kenora — representing the surrounding Treaty 3 territory — to the inaugural Ontario Nish Basketball Invitational, in Rama, near Orillia. Twenty-one Indigenous youth formed boys’ and girls’ teams in just four days.

Kenora, a town of 15,000 people near the southern Manitoba border, then fundraised $36,000 in two months — enough for the teams and their chaperones to fly out to the tournament.

“It was brand new,” Cameron says. “I think people were excited to hear we put together a team of high-school kids and gave them an experience of a lifetime.”


Making space

Cameron didn’t see many Indigenous kids on the benches of high-school basketball teams in Treaty 3 territory. Even students that showed potential in tryouts were dropping out.

In fact, many of them were dropping out of school altogether. Barely half of Indigenous students in the area’s Keewatin-Patricia District School Board graduate high school within four years. Cameron believes there’s a correlation: Indigenous kids who don’t get on the court often don’t get on the convocation stage either.

“I know there are some really good teachers and coaches that make that effort,” Cameron says, “but not everyone does — and I think that extra effort needs to be made to encourage Aboriginal students to join sports.”

Citing a 2016 report by Statistics Canada, Cameron says if Indigenous kids participate in sports, “their chances of being a successful student increases.” The survey indicates those engaged in sport are more likely to be in “very good to excellent health” and less likely to spend several hours a day watching TV, playing video games, or using the internet. (The same survey, however, also found that kids’ involvement in athletics correlates with higher parental education levels and family income.)

Cameron has seen living proof of the study’s findings. Kynsey Bluebird, now 17, lived with her aunt and in two different foster homes the year she went to the Ontario Nish Basketball Invitational. That’s nothing out of the ordinary here: Aboriginal kids in communities northwest of Thunder Bay are 10 times more likely to be in foster care than their non-Aboriginal peers.

Bluebird turned to Cameron for help — and stability. “I just felt lonely. I didn’t have that support,” she says. “I started hanging out with her daughter a lot and going to her house a lot, and they basically treated me like family — so I asked her if she would take me in, and she said yeah.”

Since then, another basketball season has come and gone, and Bluebird’s grades have jumped 20 per cent to a solid B.​

Opening doors

Today, Cameron is focused on helping basketball grow. After both Treaty 3 teams — the boys and the girls — won silver medals at the Ontario Nish Basketball Invitational in Timmins last year, Cameron’s program attracted funding from health and sports organizations across Canada.  The money allowed her teams to enter the Minnesota Indigenous basketball circuit and compete in tournaments as far away as Arizona.

Despite the travel opportunities, her kids still felt isolated at their remote home base. Cameron raised money for jerseys and flights — she even received donations of basketballs and sneakers — but open gym sessions alone couldn’t make her teams win. They need coaching.

Once a week, Treaty 3’s only certified coach drives 130 kilometres each way between Dryden and Kenora for two-hour practices. Basketball’s limited popularity has made it impossible to attract certification training — and no videoconferencing certification programs exist.

The Steve Nash Foundation, a non-profit that helps underserved youth access sports, reached out to Treaty 3 to offer its sports camp this spring to kids as young as seven, plus a training program for people interested in coaching — of which, it turned out, there were dozens.

Many coaching hopefuls were teachers from First Nations schools across Treaty 3 territory. Of the other registrants, nine were under the age of 18 — kids looking to take their game to the mentorship level. “If this is a success this spring, we might be able to run it again in November and have our young people run it for these children,” Cameron says.

“Then northern communities will catch wind of what we’re doing. It has the potential to expand and grow. You’re not just building a program — you’re building capacity.”

Alex Tom, who’s currently in his last year of high school, was among the first to register for coach training. A natural athlete, Tom was socially isolated when he moved to Kenora from Naotkamegwanning First Nation (Whitefish Bay) after his parents divorced. He wanted to break out of his shell —  and he chose Treaty 3 basketball to help him do it.

“I started meeting people and I told myself, ‘I don’t want to be left out. I don’t want to feel this way,’” he says.

Tom shed 25 pounds playing with Treaty 3. He also made plenty of friends.

On the court, Cameron lets him lead kids through training; off the court, he scouts local students as young as 12, with the aim of finding young talent that will help make the Treaty 3 basketball program a lasting success.

“It’s the only way kids are going to get involved, because coaches aren’t going to open doors for everyone. I know kids out there take interest, but they don’t take the initiative. They feel closed,” he says.

“Just keep opening doors for them. Keep giving them opportunities. Give them a chance.”

Jon Thompson is TVO’s northwestern Ontario reporter.

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