Canada’s Iroquois Roots uses rugby to inspire First Nation youths

What it’s like to coach rugby in Canada’s indigenous communities

Mel Squire and family run the Iroquois Roots rugby project from the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, Canada, and she laughs of the shared name with Europe’s beloved rugby tournament: 
“I honestly think that’s how a lot of people stumble upon our website!”

The project’s goal is to take rugby into the indigenous populations of Ontario. Part of the Turtle Clan of the Mohawk Nation, Squire and her children are proud members of the Iroquois Confederacy – made up of six First Nations from Southern Ontario (Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, Onondaga and Tuscarora). The reserve, an hour south of Toronto, is one of 133 indigenous communities in Ontario.

“It’s our goal to get to every one of them,” Squire adds. The scheme is still in its infancy, being founded by Squire and daughter Meagan Wilson in 2017.

Meagan and brother Darris began playing rugby in high school and in time, Meagan was awarded a scholarship to well-known rugby school Shawnigan Lake, out west on Vancouver Island. Then it was off to McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario – roughly 30 minutes from the family home – where she’s enjoyed success in the uni game.

What it’s like to coach rugby in Canada's indigenous communities

Lay-off: Player Trevor McDonald offloads (pics from Iroquois Roots)

So what are the key moves right now? Squire explains: “We promote rugby and run free camps. We’ve also started U18 boys’ and girls’ teams. All the kids are from our community but we have interest from kids in other communities who want to join once the pandemic is over.

“Convincing people 
to choose rugby is our challenge. We’re the Six Nations of the Grand River and we’re the largest First Nation in Canada. We have around 15,000 people in our community and it’s known for lacrosse.

“Lacrosse is king here. Kids have lacrosse sticks before they’re walking. And (ice) hockey is huge as well.

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“Lacrosse has the same season as rugby – it’s challenging to get a kid to even come and see what rugby is.”

It’s been a few years of slow progress. Early, the key was accepting that even 
a few children turning up was a success, a great chance to do one-on-one work.

Roots earned attention recently when they publicly condemned Exeter Chiefs for their branding and mascot, tweeting: “Your name, logo and mascot could 
use a full overhaul. It does not honour indigenous culture in any way, rather the opposite. Our culture is NOT a costume.”

What it’s like to coach rugby in Canada's indigenous communities

Learning the basics: An Iroquois camp (pics from Iroquois Roots)

Closer to home, Squire talks of the importance of honouring heritage, educating the rest of Canada about their culture and working hard to reach the most remote nations in the province.

“We are definitely marginalised communities here in Canada,” Squire says. “If you head north in Ontario, many other nations there don’t have running water or access to clean, potable drinking water. Because of that, there are certain diseases there.

“Diabetes is also huge within our communities because as you head north they don’t have food security. They can’t grow food as they’re on permafrost. They’ll have one store that sells produce but by the time it gets to these remote communities – that you can only fly into – it’s not the freshest and it’s so expensive. Not many people can afford to eat those fruits and vegetables.”

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Those outside of Canada may not appreciate just how isolated these families are, how tough to access. Roots have not managed to take their project far north yet, as it would cost CA$2,000 per person to fly in; to take three coaches, with a few balls and bibs, would cost you $6,000.

Funding is needed. Squire has plans to talk with the Canadian government and they now have a tie-in with the Toronto Arrows professional team from Major League Rugby. Roots would love to host some of their group, to introduce them to their community and show them more about their heritage. And while they introduce more and more children to the sport of rugby, they also want to honour indigenous traditions and sports.

Sharing their story is key. Squire tells of “a hugely tragic part of our history that everybody in Canada is really just learning about” – of a shameful century of using schools and churches to wrest indigenous children from reserves, to attack their language. Squire speaks 
of older generations who have known the horrors of beatings and even sexual assault. Canada’s prime minister has publicly apologised for this past, sparking more national discussion, and while some still deny this truth there is hope a nation can learn from history.

What it’s like to coach rugby in Canada's indigenous communities

Into the breach: Girls sevens (pics from Iroquois Roots)

Roots hosted a camp at the infamous Mohawk Institute ground, a moment Squire calls “powerful”. There was an eerie feeling at first, an unease passed down through the years. But the group feel that using the grounds for good was an ultimately cathartic moment. As Squire adds: “For our ancestors I think they would be happy knowing that you’re able to run and play here.”

As the Roots project tries to gather steam, hopefully more youths turn to the oval ball. However, while some may be concerned about low numbers initially, 
it is important to grow organically.

“I think it’s most important that indigenous role models are the ones going into these communities to 
do this,” Squire concludes. “For far too long, 
we have had non-indigenous people going into communities to run programming. And I think, ‘Why aren’t we using our own people? We have these champions within our communities that should be 
out there!’

“I just think it’s so important for indigenous youths to see more role models who look like them.”

With women like Mel and Meagan, 
the Roots certainly have some strong figures tossing a rugby ball their way.

This article originally appeared in the September 2020 edition of Rugby World magazine.

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