Courtesy Harry Rice
By Joseph Czikk
When Kahnawake’s Under-17 girls soccer team stepped on the field Thursday night, they did so showcasing brand new jerseys. The colour the girls wore was different this time. Orange, rather than the usual purple.
There was also something new on the sleeves. The words: “Every child matters.”
Both the U-17 team and the Under-12 girls teams decided that they would dedicate the 2021 season to the Indigenous children whose graves were found near former residential schools across Canada. It’s a painful topic to think about, but one the girls and their coaches felt was necessary this season.
The U-17 girls started wearing their new threads on Thursday night when they defeated Ormstown 3-0. Mya Mcgregor scored two goals while Mia Meloche added another goal.
Harry Rice, one of the coaches, said he sat down with the girls during practice a few weeks ago. Together they talked about the discovery of the first 215 bodies in Kamloops, BC, and how they felt about the news. First, the group decided on braiding or tying an orange ribbon in their hair in order to remember the children.
When Rice proposed changing the team’s jerseys to orange for two seasons, the girls’ response was a resounding yes. The U-12 team debuted their new jerseys last week.
“Even at 10 or 11 years old, these girls know what’s going on with the residential school children, and they wanted to do something for the children,” said Rice.
Rice hopes that the new jerseys can act as a conversation starter.
“I just thought that the slogan needed to be stated,” said Rice. “Maybe one parent on another team might ask one of our parents why we changed. And that can spark up a conversation and raise awareness, so it’s a great opportunity to help us remember these children.”
Both of Krissi Delaronde’s daughters play on the U-17 team, including 16-year-old Kaksatahno:ron Deer and 13-year-old Kaksa’ti:io Deer. There wasn’t enough interest to make an Under-15 girls team this year, so Kaksa’ti:io and a few other younger girls had to move up to the U-17 team.
Delaronde said both of her daughters were upset when she explained what had happened with the residential school children. She said it was hard for the girls, who couldn’t imagine that happening today. But residential schooling affected the grandparents and parents of many in the community today, and some were still operating even when Delaronde was still in school.
“When I try to explain to them that this actually happened and some kids didn’t come home, they can’t understand why they wanted to do that to our people,” she said.
“They want to know why our people didn’t fight harder, but I explained that it’s difficult to fight when there were so many people pulling your kids away. You can’t imagine what that was like. It was a different time back then, unfortunately.”
Delaronde added that by wearing the new jerseys, “it’s still very valid to think about and give some recognition for all those children and their families.”
Delaronde’s daughter, Kaksatahno:ron, told The Eastern Door that the team welcomed the new threads so “people know who we’re playing for. It’s really sad to think about, but it keeps you motivated to play for the kids who couldn’t play,” said Deer.
She said several opposing players have been nicer this year than they have in past seasons, talking with them and asking about the jerseys.
The girls haven’t played soccer for at least a calendar year due to provincial COVID-19 restrictions, including any school sports. Delaronde said it’s been tougher than usual for the girls to catch up on their fitness.
Still, the U-7 team has ban record after the first five games. The U-12s are still chasing their first victory, sitting at an 0-2-2 record over their first four games. Both squads play against teams from Chateaugay, Mercier, Soulange, Valleyfield and Ormstown.
Rice admits that the year-long layoff has affected the players physically and mentally, but every week their bodies are growing more accustomed to the physical demands of the sport.
As for the 13-year-old girls who joined the team, Kaksatahno:ron said they’ve played well enough with the older girls that one wouldn’t be able to tell them apart.
The coach is also emphasizing that the focus isn’t entirely on winning. After such an irregular past 12 months, Rice wants the girls to have a positive experience while playing. He wants them to get back to a sense of normalcy.
“What we’ve gone through for the past 18 months wasn’t normal for anybody,” said Rice. “Of course, they’re competitive, but they’re going out for the love of the sport, and it’s not necessarily all about winning. If they’re smiling and there are no injuries, then we’re happy,” said Rice.
“It feels very good to get back out there and just start playing,” said Kaksatahno:ron.
Rice did mention one big goal that the girls could be looking forward to: the next Indigenous Games, slated for 2023 in Nova Scotia. He believes the older girls could be able to compete, with the possibility that the Games will create an Under-20 age bracket. The U-12s will certainly be eligible to compete.
For now, though, the focus is just on the girls playing soccer and enjoying it, said the coach.
“The girls that come out to practice every week are there because they love playing soccer, point-blank,” he said.
“When I see one of the girls in town, and they come up to me with a big smile on their face, that’s enough gratification for me.”