Sunday January 07, 2018

Métis kayaker paddling to Olympic podium

Métis kayaker James Lavallee hopes to one day make it on the Canadian Olympic team.

Métis kayaker James Lavallee hopes to one day make it on the Canadian Olympic team. (Submitted by Dené Sinclair)

Listen 7:08

As a preteen with ADHD and dyslexia, James Lavallee struggled in school. Nothing fit. Class was tough and he couldn't seem to do well in any sports he tried.

Then one day, the then 11-year-old tried kayaking and something clicked.

"Life for me was really frustrating and when I started kayaking it was the first thing I could see myself improving in," he said. 

"I put in hard work and I saw results where I didn't see that anywhere else. So it just connected. And something about being on the river every day and being outside was pretty powerful. It all fit."

And the rest, they say, is history.

Manitoban James Lavallee, seen here in Lane 4 during his heat Monday morning, won bronze in the men'

Manitoban James Lavallee, seen here in Lane 4 won bronze in the men's 500-metre kayak. (Twitter/TeamToba)

In Lavallee's case, it's also history in the making. Kayaking became his passion. Today, he competes for the Junior National Kayak Team.

In summer 2017, he won three medals for Team Manitoba at the Canada Summer Games in Winnipeg. On the podium during those games, he wore his Métis sash while receiving his medals. Paying homage to his heritage at such a public event was an easy decision for the 20-year-old University of Manitoba student.

"I have never raced at this calibre of event or in the homeland in Manitoba, we don't really have the race course for that, so I thought it was important to bring light to where we were, and to represent my nation on homeland was pretty awesome," he said.

"I was pretty proud to do that. And I think I will be wearing the sash on more podiums to come."

He wants to be on the podium at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, and he promises to wear his Métis sash on the Olympic podium, even if he has to break or bend some rules.

From now until then, he will train and race, and win more awards.

In October 2017, Lavallee was given the Tom Longboat Award as the top male Indigenous athlete in Canada. In fall 2017, he was also named one of CBC Manitoba's Future 40 finalists.

Down the road, Lavallee hopes to introduce more people to kayaking through an Indigenous holistic paddling program he wants to start with a fellow Métis athlete. Lavallee hopes to launch that program after the 2020 Olympics.

"It's not just training, we're building life skills," he explained.

He wants to see elders teaching and integrating Indigenous knowledge into the program, including lessons about how people are connected to the land and the water.

Ultimately, Lavallee hopes to connect more Indigenous youth to sport, and use it to build a connection to their heritage and identity.

"That is really important."