The Hockey Nova Scotia Indigenous Girls Hockey Program is one of our Saputo Signature Grant recipients, six incredible organizations from across Canada who exemplify how physical activity helps #MeYouUs.
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“It all began with a conversation a few years ago with Hockey Nova Scotia about how to increase opportunities for girls, especially in Indigenous communities, to play hockey,” said Ryan Francis, co-founder and lead of the Hockey Nova Scotia Indigenous Girls Hockey Program and a member of the Acadia First Nation.
Ryan and his co-founders understand how sport participation can foster a sense of community and belonging that is crucial for our social well-being and mental health. They also understand how many people living in Canada face powerful barriers that prevent them from playing sports, such as a lack of financial means or safe spaces to participate.
That’s why the Indigenous Girls Hockey Program is such an essential initiative. Launched in February 2020, this free program creates opportunities for Indigenous girls between the ages of 6 and 14 to learn basic hockey skills, providing them with ice time and gear in three Nova Scotia locations: Truro, Eskasoni and Membertou.
“Dedicating time, space and resources directly to Indigenous girls who want to play hockey and giving them the opportunity to play with their peers is an experience they’ve never had before,”
said Ryan. Over 190 girls have participated in the program to date. “It’s nice to see a bunch of girls coming out to play now,” said Madison Gould, one of the program’s on-ice leads. “All these years in Eskasoni, there were barely any girls playing hockey, so this program has been quite nice to have.”
The program’s predominantly female roster, which includes young Indigenous coaches like Erin Denny, the first Mi’kmaw woman to play for Team Nova Scotia, helps participants feel more comfortable.
“I always felt like I was being judged by the boys, so it’s a safe spot for young Indigenous girls,”
said Amaya Johnson, one of the program’s on-ice assistants.
According to Ryan, a safe space to play hockey, teamwork, motivation and becoming more supportive of others are just a few benefits that the girls enrolled in the program experience. Most importantly, they benefit immensely from seeing their own culture represented in hockey. “I like my coaches! They’re nice, and one’s my mom,” agrees eight-year-old program participant Riley.
“The rich history of the Mi’kmaq and our relationship to hockey runs deep,” said Ryan. “It’s so important to understand and appreciate the contributions of the Mi’kmaq to hockey and to incorporate our language and perspectives into the program. These girls have the opportunity to hear their language being spoken, take interest in it and even learn it in a small way through hockey.
When you see yourself in a game where historically Indigenous women and girls may not have seen themselves, you create that sense of community.
And when you feel seen, heard and celebrated, you gain confidence in other spaces, whether that’s at school or in other social settings.”
The focus of the program is not just hockey participation but also supporting and empowering Indigenous girls and women in leadership positions, including on-ice leads, regional administration roles and junior coaches.
“We help provide a pathway to coaching,” said Ryan. “While there are a few minimum requirements we ask of them, we support them in obtaining those. We’ve seen the cycle completed where a junior coach has moved into a more formal on-ice lead role, and we want to continue to see that.”
In addition to leading this program, Ryan works full time for the Government of Nova Scotia in the community, culture and heritage department. As one of three finalists up for the NHL’s Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award, Ryan is being recognized for the incredible positive impact brought by this program.
As for the future of the Indigenous Girls Hockey Program, Ryan hopes to see expansion and enhancement based on feedback from the community. Throughout June as part of the ParticipACTION Community Better Challenge and with the support of a Saputo Signature Grant, the program is hosting three jamborees across Atlantic Canada (Truro, Nova Scotia, Moncton, New Brunswick, and Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island) to celebrate Indigenous women and girls in hockey.
“I have a strong desire to see the program grow across the region. In mainstream sport, we’ve defined regions by provincial borders, and that creates many challenges. Something I would love to see is recognizing this program in the traditional territory. How we come to that will certainly require a lot of conversations.”
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