For some, playing basketball is life in Nunavik

Young Inuit in northern Quebec who want to get competitive with basketball are getting help from coaches from the south to make that a reality.

Every Tuesday night, kids in Kuujjuaq, Nunavik flock to their community centre to play basketball. One of them, Matthew Hubloo, is a 17-year-old with his eye on the ball.

“I’m what you call like a two-way player, so I’m really good on offense and defense, but I think my stronger attribute I guess is definitely defense,” said Hubloo.

Hubloo has been working hard to improve his form – even with some starts and stops from injuries and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“At first it was like, it’s something to do. But then over time I kind of just fell in love with it,” said Hubloo.

But playing in a small fly-in community has its challenges – other than hockey, there are not many organized sports events.

“When you want to get better, you got to play someone who’s better than you. There’s not a lot of people who play basketball here, and not a lot of people who take it super seriously,” said Hubloo.

Russ Johnson is trying to change that through his program Grind Now Shine Later Nunavik, or GNSL. He’s been organizing competitions and workshops between villages and recruiting coaches for communities.

“Student athletics is something that’s fundamental and honestly it should’ve happened up here 20 years ago, it’s a little ridiculous that we’re at the starting stages of this stuff up here,” said Johnson.

Johnson has coached all over. He’s originally from Montreal where he coached inner-city kids – including Chris Joseph, an ex-NBA player who coined the phrase Grind Now Shine Later which means, “the hard work you put in today, is what’s going to make you shine down the road,” explained Johnson.

Along with some coaches from the south and community members in the north, Johnson has been sourcing money for inter-city workshops and tournaments, contacting potential coaches for communities that don’t have one, and working on getting GNSL official not-for-profit status.

Bruno Bourget, one of the coaches from the south, has been living in Nunavik for a decade. He said basketball gives a much-needed space for fun in the north.

“For sure it breaks the isolation and the youths are building their own network. It’s also a safe space for them, they know the gym is always open, so if they feel lonely or they want to be out of their home, then they can come to the gym with their friends,” he said.

“They have fun, sometimes they forget what’s their reality, and they just play, like they should do.”

While hockey is big in Nunavik, located in northern Quebec and home to 14 Inuit communities, the cost of equipment and access to a working rink can be a barrier for some, according to Johnson.

“Basketball’s a really good sport for the north because sometimes arenas have difficulties, sometimes they’re not operational for whatever reason, but gyms don’t break down. Shoes are not that expensive, basketballs are not that expensive, so in terms of the infrastructure it was already there,” he said.

“Every community has one or two gyms, so we’re already ready to go, and what we want to do is create the first sports league as soon as we can.”

One of Johnson’s collaborators is Angelina Mesher, a young Inuit woman who works at Tarsakallak School in Aupaluk. She’s played basketball for most of her life.

“Growing up, it was just always like free play, just shooting a basketball around,” said Mesher.

When she moved to the south as a teenager, a coach noticed her shooting skills and recruited her to the competitive basketball team. Mesher played for years, but that changed when she moved back to up north.

“I kind of went from having a team and having activities to do over time and then not having any activities going on. When I moved back to my hometown for my graduating year, and it was always a question to myself, why do we not have the programs, you know? Or like the school teams and all that stuff,” she said.

Through the recent programming, Mesher said she’s seeing more kids playing team sports.

“There’s definitely a huge impact on the kids and their involvement. Before, I’m sure most of the kids didn’t [have] the skills and stuff like that, and we’re just attracting more and more youth,” she said.

“For me it’s like really mind-blowing, it’s like really crazy for us to finally have these things.”

According to Johnson, while participation is increasing, one of the main challenges is bringing kids from different fly-in communities together to compete against each other.

The more recent workshop was held in Aupaluk with neighbouring villages in mid-October.

“This week was supposed to be a group of a hundred kids. When we got the flight costs, for 50 kids… they wanted us to get them $150,000, which is a shocking number, to be honest, for a student activity. We tried to get a discount, and we were told that was with the discount,” said Johnson.

But this event still brought Felix Suppa from Kuujjuaq and Aloupa Taqulik Jr. from Aupaluk together. The two 13-year-old basketball players who are now friends. The boys are fond of their homes in Nunavik.

“You can go hunting any time, you know everyone in your town,” said Taqulik Jr.

“You can go anywhere out the land,” said Suppa.

“And it’s beautiful too,” added Taqulik Jr.

But outside of traditional activities and hockey, Taqulik Jr. said “there would be nothing to do without basketball.”

Johnson said a lack of activities at school contributes to Nunavik’s 80 per cent high school dropout rate.

“Without student athletics, I don’t see things turning around, or extracurriculars, right, you need something to have kids really enjoy school, not everybody enjoys math, so to have them really buy into their education if you don’t tie in something that you can use as a carrot to that stick, a lot of kids would just walk away,” said Johnson.

For students like Matthew Hubloo, sports can make all the difference.

“Basketball gives me a reason to get up in the morning because I want to get better,” said Hubloo.

“One day I want to definitely play in the college level and that’s something I’ve been working toward every single day.”

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