BC Lions players coached flag football and Indigenous kids played during a second annual tournament held at Surrey’s Tom Binnie Park on Sunday (April 30).
The day capped a three-week program that involved teaching football, teamwork and leadership skills to youth who might otherwise know little or nothing about the gridiron game.
Indigenous teens and families from across Metro Vancouver and Fraser Valley gathered on the turf in Whalley for the special event, which began with a welcome from Harley Chappell, elected chief of Semiahmoo First Nation.
Chappell’s sons and nephews played on the Chilliwack Hornets team, representing Squa First Nation.
“The kids love it,” Chappell said, “and today when I opened, I mentioned that this is how my boys got turned on to football, through this program, and now they’re avid, gung-ho football players who live and breathe football.
“We’ve become a football family because of it,” he added. “It keeps them busy, active. It’s great. And with the coaches here, the players, these kids get to meet them and see them as normal people, which is fantastic too.”
Launched in 2022, the program aims to teach football and life skills to Indigenous youth in the region, as part of the Lions’ Orange Shirt initiative.
“As an organization,” said Jamie Taras, director of community partnerships, “we wanted to do something following the news out of Tk’emlúps (Kamloops) two years ago, and this is the result of that, this flag football program for Indigenous youth. We’re trying to move toward truth and reconciliation, and this is how we chose to do that.”
This year close to 60 kids got involved on teams based in Surrey, Chilliwack and Vancouver. Four teams were created for the tournament, including the Dawgs of Surrey’s Frank Hurt Secondary. Three Lions players were assigned to coach each team at practices held in recent weeks.
“We had a tremendous response with this,” Taras said. “The group in Chilliwack, they filled their roster within a few days, which is great. We’re really happy with the group of kids and the coaches, they’re doing a great job teaching the kids the great game of football.”
The coaches of the Surrey team were Lions players David Knevel, Michael Couture and Jordan Herdman-Reed.
“We have the 12 coaches, and they’ve been here from the get-go putting their game plans together, and some of them are still learning the rules of flag football,” Taras said with a laugh.
“He’s new to the Lions,” noted Lara Mussell-Savage, chief of Sqwa First Nation and director of sport with I-SPARC (Indigenous Sport, Physical Activity & Recreation Council). “We’re delighted that he’s here because he’s an Indigenous role model and a pro football player, too. He’s very cultural and has shared song with the kids at the leadership workshop (held in Richmond earlier).
I-SPARC helped the Lions get kids involved in the football program, and some of the youth have really embraced the game.
“They’re getting really good and getting invitations to try out for teams,” said Mussell-Savage, a BC Sports Hall of Fame ultimate player. “And you can see here that it’s a mix of levels and it’s co-ed too, all genders. They’re having fun, and there’s a celebrity factor too when you’re being coached by a player with the Lions. That’s special for these kids, and the Lions are definitely growing their fanbase with these kids and their families.
^^ correction: the Hornets are not Frank Hurt, who are the Dawgs in grey (not shown in this video). I’m so confused.— Tom Zillich (@TomZillich) April 30, 2023
“A lot of the kids told me that they didn’t know about the Lions until they got involved in this program, and now they’ve become fans and see their coaches play on TV and at the stadium. They all get to go to a game at BC Place this season.”
Corporate sponsors stepped up to help the Lions run the program, including Prospera Credit Union, BC Hydro, LiUNA Local 1611, FortisBC, Pomerleau and Leavitt Machinery.
“There is no trophy at the end of the tournament,” Taras explained, “because we de-emphasize the importance of winning, and this is more about the experience and fun. But usually the championship team gets to eat first at the barbecue and have a Vera’s burger, so that’s the trophy for them.”