A local Indigenous rugby program has returned to Vancouver from its first international tournament, with more than just a few wins under its belt.
Vancouver Island-based Thunder Rugby saw a mix of Under 18 and Under 16 teams compete in California's LA Sevens Invitational tournament, where they took part in over 36 games of Rugby 7s - the Olympic version of the sport.
They triumphed, with one of the Boys Under 18 teams winning the Plate competition and the Girls Under 18 winning their division, but it was off the field where the real action took place. With over 80 per cent of the team hailing from various First Nation backgrounds, the trip was as much about celebrating heritage as it was sport.
"Our program has always been to focus on Indigenous youth," says director John Lyall, who founded Thunder Rugby in 2014. “Rugby is a great game, but the biggest part of this trip was to strengthen Indigenous identity and cultural pride among the players."
When the teams weren’t competing or hurling a rugby ball around on the beach, they came together for song. Often tour leader Raymond Jones Peter Jr., a member of Cowichan Tribes, would lead renditions of Hych'ka Siem. A song inspired by gratitude, its title translates to "thank you" in the Coast Salish language Hul’q’umi’num'.
It had been a convoy of two buses, six cars, and a caravan that carried the 39-strong group from Vancouver to California, racking up 5,000 km of motorway travel. For some of the younger players, many of whom had never left the comforts of Canada before, the road trip was a lesson in rugby, cultural practice and life itself.
"I'd never left the province before this and so there was a lot of nervous excitement," admits Savion Atchison, a Grade 12 Carson Graham student from North Vancouver, "but it was a great experience. I learned so many new things."
Atchison, a Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) member, said he admired the program's leaders for giving Indigenous youth the opportunity to learn more about their own culture.
"It's cool how John has put together this First Nation's team, giving native kids the chance to learn. Having an Elder tell us stories about the game, and sports, in general, has been super fun too,” he says, adding how Raymond Jones Peter Jr, or simply "Brother Rick" to the team, will forever be at the centre of fond memories for all players and staff alike.
Mina Kerr-Lazenby is the North Shore News' Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.