Ryan Francis is one of three finalists for the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award given to an individual who, through the sport of hockey, has positively impacted his or her community, culture or society.
Despite growing up off-reserve in Cole Harbour, Francis says his parents made sure he was always connected to his home of Acadia First Nation in southwestern Nova Scotia.
“Whether that was through things offered by Acadia First Nation or through our Mi’kmaq Friendship Centre here, both of my parents were quite intentional helping me understand my identity,” Francis said, “and so I’ve always felt that connection to my community and that support.”
In 2020, Francis launched the Indigenous Girls Hockey Program Nova Scotia, which encourages young Mi’kmaq girls to join the sport and helps break down barriers that have commonly kept girls from playing the game.
“It’s a 10-week hockey program,” he told APTN News. “We put heavy emphasis on supporting our leadership and on-ice administration so that the participants who are participating in the program see their own community members and have that recognition and have that familiarity.”
Working mainly off the ice, Francis’s efforts are focused on making sure the players have the equipment and resources they need.
In the first two years, the program drew nearly 200 girls from three different Mi’kmaq communities. Francis hopes to grow the program even more.
“Where we can incorporate things like culture and things like language is certainly areas that we look to do,” he said.
“Another piece of that is doing appropriate evaluation and sort of integrating things like sharing circles and things that better help us understand the needs of the community for the program in a way that is culturally relevant and culturally safe for our participants.”
Even if he wins the award, Francis said he didn’t do this alone.
“Being surprised by the NHL being named a finalist, the Top 3, that day was quite hectic, but also quite special,” he admitted.
“…I felt very undeserving and, like I said, I didn’t anticipate it would go anywhere knowing the incredible work that many people are doing across North America in making the game safer and more welcoming.”
For him, sports and Indigenous culture go hand in hand.
“As Indigenous people, it’s fair to say that those are one and the same,” Francis explained, “so what lacrosse is to a person to another person may look different, but to actually differentiate that from sport to culture actually isn’t fair.
“So sport plays such a vital role in helping us understand who we are and to even celebrate who we are.”
Voting has closed and the winner will be revealed during the Stanley Cup playoffs conference finals.
The winner will receive $25,000 while the other two finalists will receive $5,000, to be donated to the charity of their choice.