“A heart without dreams is like a bird without feathers.”S. Kassem
Contemporary research has found that educational attainment rates and income are directly related for Indigenous people. Therefore, Indigenous educational programs are crucial to closing the income gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous wage earners. The loss of cultural traditions, viable community life, as well as social and educational inequities, along with pervasive discrimination have all contributed to the incredible challenges Indigenous youth face in Canada. According to John Williams, a running back that played eight seasons with the CFL, the success of an individual is often tied to the success of their community. His vision is to keep Indigenous youth active, educated, and connected to their community. “I think more than anything it’s an opportunity to show them that university is not a scary place. There is such a large dropout rate for Indigenous students that come to university because it’s so foreign to them.”
Williams, who was born and raised in Ontario, felt like an outsider when he attended university in the United States as a Black student athlete in colleges that were predominantly White. The feelings of alienation and the lack of support in a highly competitive academic and athletic arena were something he could identify with. When Williams worked as the coordinator of community relations for the Hamilton Tiger Cats, he helped set up a football camp for the youth of the Six Nations Reserve. During the event he met Native American Jim Warne and saw how he captivated and encouraged the kids with teachings from their own culture. Williams was impressed, but it also hit home. “It was very similar to my experiences; I knew some of the hurdles I had to get through and without much support.”
A door opened for Williams to become that support through one of his contacts, James Knibb-Lamouche, who is the associate director for Indigenous student services at Mac Master University. Knibb-Lamouch, who is of Cree and Metis ancestry, is thrilled that Williams is implementing Indigenous initiatives connected to McMaster. In a series of synchronistic encounters Williams has been given the opportunity to support students from under-represented minorities in sport. “As a former racialized student-athlete myself, I understand some of the challenges that go along with existing on a predominantly white campus in a new environment. The McMaster Youth Movement was created to help those Indigenous students find balance in chaos by staying active, educated and connected to their communities.” The Mac Youth Movement had its inception from an event Williams had encountered at the University of Oregon. The university had a field day where Native American youth from across the state gathered together, enjoyed sports, met student athletes, and heard motivational speakers.
Williams’ vision and energy are tireless. “We are working on a number of initiatives for the new year.” He plans to host his second field day at the McMaster campus. The first field day included various athletic competitions and invited 50 youth from the Six Nations Reserve and from Hamilton, Ontario. His newest venture soon to be launched is a leadership program for Indigenous girls with an interest in sport entitled AS-IF (Access to Sport for Indigenous Females). The program will see Mac Master students travel to Six Nations to assist teens with leadership development. Williams is also planning to host a “Day in the life of a student-athlete,” where boys and girls basketball teams from a Six Nations elementary school will have the opportunity to see the campus and perhaps their future. A Basketball clinic for youth is also in the works.
There is obviously more to the programs that Williams develops than just athletics. He interweaves lessons on the importance of using sport as a catalyst for social justice. Not only can sport work to combat racism, but it can encourage students to promote positive community identity and take pride in their culture. “This youth movement that we’ve created, it’s our mission to continue to bring in more Indigenous student athletes,” says Williams. Through a variety of sports-based programs the very existence of MYM is to ensure the long term athletic development and growth of Indigenous youth on the McMaster campus and beyond.
The group recently teamed up with the Lubicon Lake Nation in the community of Little Buffalo to inspire their youth to remain active through football, basketball, soccer, and various other activities. They had the opportunity to listen to John Williams, Anthropologist Dr. Dawn Martin-Hill, and Cody Lookinghorse of Standing Rock share the importance of sports, education, and culture. Each youth received a Hamilton Tiger-Cats Football jersey.
The Lubicon Lake Nation is a high risk community in the interior of Northern Alberta. Once a people known for their self-sufficiency, as well as their hunting and trapping skills, they are now struggling against various societal and health issues including the contamination of their land and water due to ongoing oil and gas development around their community. The Lubicon Cree do not have a reserve or any legal rights to the management of the land they live on. The health of their children is adversely affected by a lack of sanitation and potable water.
But “hope is the thing with feathers,” and as long as there are groups like the McMaster Youth Movement and people willing to go the extra mile compassion demands, then the future can be brighter. Sport can empower youth and through education, change lives over the generations. Williams’ goal with McMaster is to see more access to recruitment and retention of Indigenous students. He wants to take programs like McMaster across Canada. “I thought this was the perfect opportunity to get the ball rolling and doing it more. The program now… revolves around the same thing: access, recruitment, retention of more Indigenous student athletes.” Sports shaped Williams’ life and opened doors to his future, and perhaps his calling. He wants to see the same opportunities continue for future generations of all people in Canada. “The CFL has given me such a large platform to be able to speak out on these issues.” Because of John Williams and all the people working with him, it is an opportunity given wings.
By: Alison Zenisek