Niki Ashton calls on Ottawa, FIFA to boost investment in soccer for Indigenous and northern communities

Manitoba member of Parliament Niki Ashton (Churcill-Kewwatinook Aski) is asking the federal government to step up with their support of recreational activities in Indigenous and Northern communities. 

At a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday the NDP representative was joined by members of Opaskwayak Cree Nation to make a case for how crucial sports, like soccer, are for rural communities. 

“In regions like ours soccer, and recreation more broadly, saves lives,” Ashton said. “It gives kids a chance to imagine and dream big — beyond the field, beyond their community and beyond even their country, and to look at the world.” 

In three years Canada, alongside The United States and Mexico, will co-host the FIFA Men’s World Cup. It will be the country’s first time hosting the men’s cup, something that Ashton says is historic. Ashton’s riding also has the highest percentage of First Nations peoples of ridings in Canada.

As the World Cup approaches, Ashton said it’s important to ensure that Indigenous youth are not left behind but are supported. 

She believes that both FIFA and the federal government should invest in these communities. 

Opaskwayak Cree Nation, located in Northwestern Manitoba, is one of the communities Ashton represents. Soccer has been popular there since the 1960s and the love for the sport only grows with each generation, she said. 

Despite the love of the game, the lack of proper infrastructure and funding is often a barrier for athletes. There have been games where due to lack of resources, players repurposed cups from Tim Hortons as shin pads, Ashton said. 

A chance to level up

Community member Savannah Henderson, who was at Thursday’s press conference, has been playing soccer for 25 years, and started when she was 10. 

“It saved my life, and it’s definitely going to save other lives,” Henderson said.

Woman with long blonde hair and glasses stands at a podium.  Behind her is a woman in a pullover and a man in a blue shirt and suspenders.
Savannah Henderson is a soccer coach. She frequently travels with her teams and says that often the communities they play in don’t have the proper equipement needed. One time, they played on a field with only one net, she said. (CBC)

She remembers playing as a child and competing against teams whose players were ten years older than her. Because the area doesn’t have an official league, often teens will either play alongside adults or against adults, something they say impacts their ability to develop as athletes.

“I always wondered why I didn’t have the opportunity to play at a higher level, rather than just the reserve level,” Henderson said.

After reaching a certain level, Henderson says she hit a plateau as a player and had to find a different way to interact with the sport. Now as an adult, Henderson is a coach and frequently travels to different communities.

Often these communities have deteriorated fields and poor conditions. There was even one occasion where the pitch only had one net — although two nets are needed in soccer, she said. 

The lack of official soccer programming in the area means that the players and teams frequently travel to different locations to play, something that isn’t accessible for everyone, Henderson said. 

A federal investment into year-long infrastructure — such as creating programming specific to the region and building new fields — would create more opportunities for youth in the community. 

Sport as ‘vehicle for change’: Lamoureux

Carriera Lamoureux, the director of special projects from Manitoba Aboriginal Sports & Recreation Council, said in an interview that when Indigenous youth want to access recreational activities, capacity and lack of opportunity are frequent barriers. 

Despite this, Lamoureux finds that Indigenous communities are consistently resilient when faced with barriers, and that’s important. 

Lamoureux believes that sports are a platform for athletes, that allows them to showcase their passion, commitment and their skills. 

“Sport isn’t about winning, It isn’t about losing — that’s a very sort of mainstream way of approaching sport,” she said. 

“It’s a vehicle for change. It’s a vehicle for development, for learning.”

Investing in recreational activities for Indigenous communities is a direct investment into the community, she said. Through team sports, individuals develop self-confidence, healthy relationships and it anchors them to something, she said. 

Henderson knows her time to play professionally has passed, and that’s OK, as the future of the sport that has lived in her communities for decades is in the hands of the younger generation. She believes it’s this generation’s job to ensure that what they pass on is better than what they received. 

“We are starting a legacy,” Henderson said. 

“So our kids can have the hope to be on Team Canada.”

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