Ultimate Canada Magazine – June 21, 2019
Written by: Dustin Claffey

“Why do we have to learn this stupid game?”

This question was directed at Willem Konrad and Mark Lloyd during their first visit to 1972 Memorial High School in Oxford House, Manitoba. With the support of Manitoba Aboriginal Sport and Recreation Council (MASRC) and Manitoba Organization of Disc Sports (MODS), Willem and Mark were visiting Oxford House in an effort to grow the game of Ultimate frisbee. Within three days, they achieved exactly what they set out to. It turns out the influence was mutual. Upon his return to Winnipeg, Willem started to think about the possibility of a 1972 Memorial High School Ultimate frisbee team that would compete in high school provincials.

Photo/ Kyle Thomas

I have had the privilege of living and teaching Physical Education in Oxford House for three years. Although my sport experience lies mostly in hockey in my home province of Alberta, since moving here I have taken on the role of coach for all sports the school supports such as cross country running, volleyball, basketball, badminton, and track and field.

When Willem first shared his idea for a high school Ultimate team I told him that it would not be possible because Oxford House cannot financially support more school teams than it already has. Without skipping a beat, Willem offered to sponsor the team himself. I was both surprised and touched by such selfless generosity. Especially from someone who had only visited Oxford House once. However, all of my hesitations disappeared when Willem explained his motives for sponsoring the athletes:

“After visiting Oxford House and learning about all the travel costs associated with living in such a remote area, you start to think about all the opportunities you were given in life. These kids are some of the coolest, funniest, and most supportive kids I’ve ever met, and it sucks that they don’t get the same chances to compete in these events as other kids due to financial barriers. I just want to help the community create these great experiences for the kids.”

Photo/ Kyle Thomas

For those who are unfamiliar with Oxford House or Bunibonibee Cree Nation, it is a fly in, First Nations community in northern Manitoba. “Fly in” means that the community is only accessible by road for the two months of the year when the muskeg and lake are frozen enough to be driven on. If you have never driven on a winter road before, it feels like being on a roller coaster. Except this rollercoaster ride lasts for four hours, which is how long it takes to reach the nearest paved highway. Oxford House has an airport which offers round trip flights for $750.00 to Winnipeg and $450.00 to Thompson.

In order for Oxford House to compete in high school zones (a prerequisite to high school provincials), the team must first fly out to Thompson and then travel to the host community from there. Teams are at the mercy of mother nature and limited flight schedules, which can turn a two-day trip into four. As such, travel is too expensive for Oxford House teams to participate in regular season tournaments. Therefore, the athletes are professional practicers until zones, where they play their first official game. Sometimes teams will practice for months only to find out that there is insufficient funding and that team does not ever have the opportunity to play a game. So when Willem suggested sponsoring the students to participate in Ultimate Frisbee Provincials in Winnipeg, I was ecstatic. Not only was I excited for the students, who would have the opportunity to experience something new, but I was also excited to share in this experience with them.

Photo/ Kyle Thomas

Fast forward to a few days before we were scheduled to leave for Provincials. I called a team meeting to inform the athletes that Willem got them new home and away jerseys, thanks to Melanie Dickin and Ken Konrad of Kee West Auto Carriers, cleats, donated by Universe Point, $100 gift cards to the mall, a free movie, a hotel with a waterslide, and so much more! I was confused as to why the athletes did not immediately share my excitement. Eventually, one of the athletes raised her hand and asked, “are we going to be the only native team there”?

The silence was palpable as they stared at me awaiting an answer. I felt terrible that I had not considered their potential discomfort. Not only were they leaving the comforts of home to play a completely new sport, but they would also be the only team representing a First Nation. In that moment, the trip became bigger than sport. It became a potential opportunity to show them a sense of belonging outside of Oxford House.

Kelvin & Oxford House, 2018 Photo/ Willem Konrad

Upon arriving in Winnipeg, we practiced with the reigning national champions, Kelvin High School. The Oxford House athletes were shy at first but that changed after a session of shared laughs and exchanging disc throwing and gripping techniques. The next day at check-in, I felt like Happy Gilmore showing up to his first golf tournament: “Hi, I’m a hockey player but I’m playing golf today”. I was out of my element at an Ultimate tournament and barely knew the rules myself.  I was especially confused when I received a bag of “Spirit Suckers”. The tournament coordinator explained to me that after every game the teams get together and award a Spirit Sucker to the most spirited male and female on the opposing team. I anticipated this being a tough sell to the team.

That said, Spirit Suckers were not the toughest sell that day. We lost every game by a landslide on that first day. The team was trying to learn the game on the fly. I also know that they were feeling the pressures of being the only all-Indigenous team at the tournament. They wanted to prove to the south that they belonged there so when things did not go their way, they became embarrassed. Their embarrassment embodied itself as blaming teammates and other self-destructive behaviours. This was the toughest day I have ever had as a coach and, in those moments, I wondered if attending this tournament was a mistake. Was this causing more harm than good?

Photo/ Kyle Thomas

I cannot speak to what took place that night but a completely different team showed up the next morning. The athletes were reinvigorated, almost winning their first game and eventually winning their final game of the tournament. A team that was pointing fingers one day earlier was now cheering, hugging and celebrating. The team language shifted from “you” to “we”. It was such a beautiful thing to witness. I was very proud of them and happy for them. Now here we are, two provincials later and have won the tournament Spirit Award as voted on by our opponents. The second time around, the confidence and support was unwavering from start to finish.

When provided with opportunities, the Oxford House athletes consistently demonstrate personal fortitude, resilience, athletic abilities and a desire to play. Willem was willing to give them the chance to shine and Ultimate, with its emphasis on valuing a person’s spirit as well as their physical abilities, was the perfect environment for the Oxford House team to thrive. Of course, I am grateful for Willem’s generosity and the Ultimate community’s hospitality but, mostly, I am proud of the Cree athletes who have become my family away from home.