Downtown Eastside soccer league heads to Alert Bay to celebrate sports, community, First Nations culture

The Vancouver Street Soccer League is preparing to head north to Alert Bay, B.C., for a First Nations soccer tournament this week.

Volunteer-run Vancouver Street Soccer League to take part in June Sports tournament

The Vancouver Street Soccer League started about 10 years ago. (Nicolas Amaya/CBC)

The Vancouver Street Soccer League is preparing to head north to Alert Bay, B.C., for a soccer tournament focused on First Nations culture this week.

The team is comprised of 16 men and women, most of them Indigenous, from the Downtown Eastside. 

"It's an incredible experience for some people who haven't maybe even ever been out of the city, who are maybe disconnected from their First Nations communities," said Sarah White, the team's president. 

The volunteer-run league started about 10 years ago for people who are homeless, formerly homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless. It also supports those who are recovering from drug and alcohol addictions or who feel marginalized in their communities.

Teams train throughout the week and play against each other, as well as against teams from organizations like the Vancouver Police Department and UBC Medical School. 

Players don't need to sign up for the drop-in games, but many, like Alex Akbar, show up week after week. 

"It's just like coming to Sunday church here. Every Sunday you see friends here, you know? It's more than teammates," Akbar said before practice on Sunday.

The Alert Bay tournament, called June Sports, celebrates 'Namgis First Nations Culture and takes place Thursday through Sunday.

Some players say the league has been a powerful, positive influence in their lives.

"It changed my life," said Patrick Oleman. "I quit drugs, alcohol and cigarettes. I've been working for the same company for six years and got into marathon running."

It won't be the team's first opportunity to travel for a tournament — the league has sent players to Homeless World Cups in Milan, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, Mexico City and Poland. 

With files from Deborah Goble