U TURNS: Every Athlete Matters

Total Sports Quinte Magazine

This column was published in the Winter 2023 issue of Total Sports Quinte magazine

By Randy Uens

We here at Total Sports Quinte are very proud of this issue supporting the “Every Child Matters” movement along with Every Child Matters Game where the Wellington Dukes will be wearing orange “Every Child Matters” jerseys.

Everyone is aware of the importance of this movement and the history behind it. The repercussions of these past travesties resonate with all Canadians and reconciliation and reparations are beginning to happen, long overdue.

I first must recognize my biases on this subject. My father was a long-time educator and spent a large portion of his career teaching in and around the Tyendinaga territory. I am proud of the reputation he developed in the community. Secondly, I grew up playing hockey and lacrosse with many athletes from our local territory along with other athletes from aboriginal territories across Canada and the U.S.

I have seen the good the bad the funny and the ugly. I have forged some great friendships over the years, and I am very sympathetic to the challenges faced by our native population. What I am most empathetic about, because of my background, are the challenges faced by aboriginal athletes. Native athletes and academics alike have talked about major impediments such as poverty, lack of opportunity and racism among the issues that challenge and impede the potential of many aboriginal athletes.

When I look back at the natives that I played lacrosse and hockey with I first always think of the camaraderie and laughs we had. Every player I had the privilege to play with was a consummate team player. Sacrifice and compete were part of the DNA. And after the game was done, there was always a laugh to be had. The sense of humour and wit is something that I always valued playing with these tremendous athletes. We had fun.

There are many success stories of aboriginal athletes. Ethan Bear, John Chabot, Cary Price, Gino Odjick and Everett Sanipass to name a few. Many athletes with local connections have made their way to some of the largest stages in the world as well. Stanley Cup winner Norm Maracle, Olympian Jillian Weir, professional hockey player Chris Brant, lacrosse player Ben Green, fastball players Jeff and GW Bubs Vanhooser to name a few. I know there are many more.

What I think of are the athletes that lacked the opportunities to take their talents beyond the confines of the Bay of Quinte area. Like many athletes of aboriginal descent across North America, the challenges have cost our society by not providing the opportunities for athletes to develop or even take up sports because of the challenges facing them. Many of the athletes I described above were given opportunities because they had connections and resources outside of the territories.

It’s been over five years since Truth and Reconciliation and many Indigenous athletes say sports programs have not done enough. By and large there is still a disparity between the number of indigenous athletes that make it to elite competition as privileged Caucasian athletes in North America.

Some territories across Canada have significant resources and a strong core of support for their athletes. Many other territories lack funding, resources and direction to foster any type of programming to develop athletes. Sports are not a priority when you don’t have potable water. That is the reality in many territories unfortunately.

Sports create pride and inclusion for communities. Sports and the arts are the fabric that weaves communities together. I applaud the community leaders from Tyendinaga that have invested in sports in our area. The list of these individuals is far too long to list here, but these contributions are valued and appreciated. The question always arises around funding and yes that is a big part of the solution. Solving social issues within the indigenous communities lays the foundation to allow for secondary developments like sports to evolve.

I believe that sports organizations need to do more to reach out to these communities to not only promote their sports and the healthy lifestyle that sports provide, but to help indigenous athletes understand the opportunities out there and to help them be identified by these elite sporting entities.

The NHL has done some limited initiatives but nothing institutional or sustained up and above short-term promotions or projects. The same goes with most sports in Canada. What I would like to see is a more focused commitment to identifying athletes and educating them on opportunities within our Canadian academic infrastructure to attain their athletic goals while earning a valuable education.

The RBC Training Ground is a tremendous platform. It identifies athletes from across the country that have natural potential or possibly trained for other sports that have transferable skills to Olympic events. This platform has paid dividends for Canada on the international stage from its inception.

Why can’t something like this be made available to indigenous athletes. In conjunction with this athletic identification is an educational component to help them realize their dreams by developing these talents inside our educational framework. It starts in high school and progresses to colleges and universities. Funding, structure and awareness are needed to accomplish this.

A great example of this is our own Justin Shakell. Justin was a local high school football standout who went on to have a Hall of Fame University career at Laurier and then was drafted by the Hamilton Tiger cats. His greatest accomplishments came after his illustrious career. What he has brought back with him as an educator and coach are proof of the positive effects sports can have on a community. You can see it in all the athletes he has mentored and inspired.

Who knows, our next Jillian Weir maybe hiding at Quinte Mohawk school, and we just don’t know it yet. We just haven’t found her yet.

Who knows what could have happened to an athlete like Ernest “Patty” Maracle if he was afforded the opportunity to pursue baseball on a level playing field. There is still work ahead, but I have optimism.

Footnote: Sincere condolences to the friends and family of Gino Odjick. Although I never had the privilege to meet him, I have several friends who knew Gino well and loved and admired him. Ex NHLer and Quinte resident Shawn Antoski was a close friend of Gino and always spoke highly of Gino’s work advocating and supporting indigenous initiatives and athletes. RIP Gino.

These are my own views and do not reflect the views of Total Sports Magazine, Dukes Sports & Entertainment or the Wellington Dukes Hockey club.