An old sport is quickly gaining traction among Mi’kmaq youth in the Maritimes.
Rugby is becoming so popular on Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqey reserves in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia that youth have formed the first all-Indigenous team to compete at the national level.
The Indigenous Spruce will play against New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, P.E.I, B.C. and Ontario in Vancouver this week.
“This isn’t really a provincial team for us. I sort of consider this our Mi’kmaq and Maliseet national team,” said Jason Peters, CEO of Aboriginal Sport and Recreation New Brunswick.
Given the worldwide popularity of rugby sevens, Aboriginal Sport and Recreation New Brunswick decided to put the ball in the hands of its youth.
“We thought, wow, what a great opportunity — all we would need is seven players to actually play,” said Peters.
They now have about two-dozen girls and 18 boys on the roster for the U-18 teams.
And Peters said he expects 1,500 Indigenous youth will be playing rugby by August.
Isaiah Saulis, one of the team’s senior players, says he’s looking forward to playing at the nationals this week in Vancouver.
“It’s a great learning experience,” he said. “Playing at the highest level in Canada, at provincials, there’s nothing better that a team can get than that.”
Blake Edwards, a coach with Indigenous Spruce, was recruited to visit reserves, introduce youth to the sport, and coach the teams.
“That’s the greatest joy I have out of it, seeing kids walking off the field with a big smile on their face, or the beads of sweat coming down their faces as well, knowing they’ve played a hard game — be it win or lose, they still have fun doing it, learning a new game, learning new skillset.”
Peters said it’s all about bringing two cultures together.
“We’re introducing an old sport to an ancient culture – the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet.”
After the Indigenous Spruce compete in the nationals, they’ll be heading overseas to compete against teams in England, Ireland and Wales this summer.
Next year, they’re bound for New Zealand.