International humanitarian group Right to Play operates in more than 20 developing countries around the world to bring sport to impoverished children, and is now partnering with the Ontario government to bring it’s programming to isolated Aboriginal communities, said Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs spokesperson Greg Flood.
“This is a groundbreaking venture for Right to Play as it marks the first time our programming will be implemented in Canada,” said the president and CEO of Right to Play, Johann Olav Koss, in a Jan. 21 news release. “We look forward to working with children and their communities in Ontario’s north.”
The project, Promoting Life-skills for Aboriginal Youth, or P.L.A.Y., will operate in northern Ontario’s Aboriginal communities and is expected to cost Right to Play around $1.6 million, said Flood.
Right to Play is currently fundraising and seeking additional partners to help cover the cost of the program. The provincial government has said that it will commit funds but has not yet revealed an exact amount.
The first community to benefit from the program will be Moose Cree First Nation, a remote community of 2,700 on the James Bay coast, near Moosonee, Ontario.
“There are a lot of issues going on,” said Larry Skory, a spokesperson for the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, “mainly the isolation, and the issues that First Nation people face within their families.”
An investigation by the Toronto Star last month found that there were 13 teen suicides among the isolated James Bay communities in 2009- another 80 teens attempted suicide but survived.
P.L.A.Y. is building on a recent trend of using sports and recreation to positively impact the lives of Canada’s Aboriginal youth, said Christina Cunningham, a fourth-year honours research psychology student at Carleton who lived in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, where the population is around 1,477.
“In Cambridge Bay, we have a policy where if you don’t attend school, you can’t play on the soccer team,” she said. “so by having the soccer team, it almost forces kids to go to school.”
Through P.L.A.Y., teachers, coaches, and community leaders hope to bring in other educational concepts such as spacial awareness, literacy, and numeracy, build self-esteem, encourage youth to take pride in their accomplishments, and educate them about health issues, said Skory,
“Sport is a safe haven for youth,” said Cunningham. “For isolated communities, it’s something to do. Youth will come to the programs instead of doing things like vandalism.”
Sport programs on reserves give opportunities to youth by fostering a sense of community, promoting healthy lifestyles, and bringing families together, said Siomonn Pulla, a professor at Carleton University who teaches a course on Aboriginal relations.
“It shows (youth) that their own people are leaders and are respected,” said Pulla. “It’s really important that the reserves have sport programs to give positive opportunities to youth.”
The lack of opportunities is what drives many teens to kill themselves, Pulla said, but this can be changed by implementing sport programs that create hopes and dreams for the future.
“(Youth) need to find something to be excited about, something to be engaged in,” said Cunningham. “If they have nothing to aspire to, then there’s no point in living.”