Hockey Nova Scotia’s Indigenous Girls Hockey Program is looking to expand to the rest of the Maritime provinces after receiving an $8,500 grant last month.
The organization secured the funding as one of six winners of the Saputo Signature Grant, part of ParticipACTION’s Community Better Challenge, which is described on its website as a “national physical activity initiative that encourages Canadians to get active together.”
The Community Better Challenge runs for the whole month of June, with communities and individuals vying to earn the title of Canada’s Most Active Community, a prize that comes with $100,000 for local physical activity initiatives.
The program offers Indigenous girls aged six to 14 the opportunity to play hockey while developing teamwork and leadership skills, as well as building positive relationships with other youth.
The support comes at a pivotal time, program lead Ryan Francis explains, after a 2021 study found that one in four Canadian girls who played sports pre-pandemic are not committed to returning.
In an interview with CityNews Halifax, Francis said the funding is going towards the program’s expansion to the rest of the Maritimes.
As part of the Community Better Challenge, the program is holding three hockey jamborees in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and on Prince Edward Island this month, something that might not have been possible without the grant.
Francis, a member of Acadia First Nation, grew up playing hockey in Cole Harbour before going on to represent Team Atlantic at the 2012 National Aboriginal Hockey Championships.
“That experience was really impactful for me; not just as a hockey player, but as a person,” he said. “My culture was always something that was important to me and something I closely identify with, but that experience brought those two things together in a way that helped me even better understand myself.”
Francis went on to study sports management and physical education, finding work in the sports sector. That’s when he came up with the idea for an Indigenous Girls Hockey Program.
“I started to see that there would be an opportunity to create something meaningful for our communities, and really support Indigenous development in hockey, specifically with women and girls,” he said.
“I was able to reflect on the opportunities that I have had and bring together partners who wouldn't, or haven't, historically come together to create something that the community has identified as a want.”
The program’s inaugural season in 2020 was forced to end early due to the COVID-19 pandemic with the state of emergency continuing to impact programming through 2021. Their third season was also delayed by a few weeks while restrictions remained in the province.
But throughout it all, Francis -- who was one of three finalists for the NHL’s Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award this year -- has never thought about quitting. That’s because the program and its participants taught him the real meaning of being a team.
“There's no doubt that our girls who participate in our program are the best team,” he said. “And the team that I cheer for most loudly in hockey.”