While Team Canada gets ready to take to the pitch at the FIFA Women’s World Cup this summer, another team—made up exclusively of indigenous women—is gearing up to represent the country in its own international tournament.
This fall, 23 soccer players from First Nations communities across the country will travel to Palmas, in central Brazil, to compete in the world’s first Indigenous Games.
The games will run from October 23 to November 1 and will bring together some 2,000 indigenous athletes from over 25 countries. The athletes will compete in a wide variety of traditional sports, like canoeing, archery, and tug-of-war, as well as some "mainstream" sports, like track-and-field and soccer.
“The tournament will provide the girls with a lifetime experience of travelling the world and representing their families and communities,” said Dano Thorne, of the Cowichan First Nation of Vancouver Island, who coaches the all-native soccer team travelling to Brazil.
Thorne has been coaching indigenous soccer teams since 1990, when he established the Native Indian Football Association (NIFA), a B.C.-based organization devoted to developing indigenous soccer players.
Thorne’s original goal for NIFA was to give a handful of aboriginal soccer players in B.C. the opportunity to play the beautiful game at a competitive level.
But over the past 25 years, the organization has expanded. Today, NIFA works with approximately 300 players of different ages from First Nations across the country and is supported by the Assembly of First Nations and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.
“We use all of our cultural beliefs to empower us to transition to new levels,” said Thorne, who still presides over the organization.
Over the years Thorne has taken aboriginal women and girls to play soccer in Europe, Australia, and the U.S. But the 2015 Indigenous Games will be NIFA’s first large-scale global event.
For the trip to Brazil, Thorne will be travelling with 23 players between the ages of 18 and 28, who come from First Nations in B.C., Saskatchewan, and Ontario.
The players were scouted during all-native tournaments held last year across the country, and got together in Vancouver last November to participate in their first training camp.
“The players are very good and young, and I added a couple of veterans who are healthy leaders and good mothers,” said Thorne, who believes his team will have a good showing at the Indigenous Games, as long as they can adapt to the humidity and heat of central Brazil.
But whatever the result is in the end, the trip will teach valuable lessons to the girls—allowing them to see the bigger world and pushing them to grow as individuals and community leaders.
“The trip will provide a forum for the girls to develop, to be proud of who they are, and to stand as an example of what we are trying to get back to in First Nations and aboriginal communities,” Thorne said. “It gives the girls the chance to focus on their own God-given talents—things that maybe they don’t see, like leadership skills and talents they have as people.”
For 26-year-old Margaret Badger from Quatsino First Nation on the northern tip of Vancouver Island, travelling to Brazil will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. She has been playing with NIFA for nine years, but this is the first time she’ll be leaving the country to play the game she loves.
“For us to be travelling to Brazil is a big recognition on us as indigenous people and soccer players,” said the central midfielder, whose soccer idol is Christine Sinclair, captain of the Canadian national team.
Badger is a leader on and off the pitch. When the ball is rolling, she leads by example, working hard in the middle of the pitch to thwart attacks from opposing teams.
Off the pitch, she is committed to being a positive role model for her two children, and has even decided to take her five-year-old daughter to the Indigenous Games.
“I’m hoping it opens her eyes up to the bigger world and the bigger picture out there of athletes,” said Badger.
Sadie Timothy, a 19-year-old striker from Tla’amin First Nation in Powell River, B.C., never imagined she’d be travelling around the world to represent her community in such a prestigious event.
“Because I’m from a small town, it really does mean a lot to all of the community that us individuals are going to go there to represent everybody,” said Timothy, who is currently enrolled at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey.
Timothy has been playing with NIFA for over two years, and is excited to travel to Brazil to participate in a tournament as big as the Indigenous Games.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I get to share it with the NIFA girls, who I’ve been training with for months,” Timothy said.
In Brazil, Timothy will have the chance to share the team with some talented new recruits, like 18-year-old Serena Hall from the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne in Ontario.
She's only been playing with NIFA since last summer, but has already had the chance to travel with the team to Vancouver and Hawaii. The trip to Brazil, however, is something she had never imagined.
“I’m excited and I’m nervous at the same time,” said Hall, who dreams of one day playing for Team Canada.
For coach Dano Thorne, participating in the Indigenous Games may give his young player the opportunity of fulfilling her dream by pushing her soccer career to the next level.
“Through the strength and commitment of our players, new opportunities can arise, such as getting them on World Cup teams, on Olympic teams, on professional teams, or on university teams,” said Thorne.