British Columbia·Photos

Rugby 7s tournament used to promote sport to Indigenous teens

A group of 30 Indigenous teens was in Vancouver on Friday to take part in a rugby skills workshop ahead of the weekend's Canada Sevens rugby tournament at BC Place.

The 'We Scrum As One' Indigenous youth rugby workshop brought 30 teens to Vancouver

A group of Indigenous teens plays rugby as part of a 'We Scrum As One' Indigenous rugby workshop. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

About 30 Indigenous teens take part in a big rugby scrimmage at Andy Livingston Park in Vancouver. Many of them really sweat it out, and there are a few tumbles as players lunge for the ball.

Running, sweating and smiling along with them are a few adults, including Canada Women's Rugby Sevens team captain and Olympic bronze medalist Jen Kish, as well as retired Fijian rugby pro Waisale Serevi.

"Okay, next try wins!" somebody shouts as lunchtime approaches. 

A player takes a tumble as Indigenous teens play rugby at Andy Livingston Park in Vancouver on Friday. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The teens are taking part in a workshop put on by the bank, HSBC Canada, which is sponsoring the Canada Sevens tournament running at BC Place this weekend.

Patricia Sayer works at HSBC and sits on the company's Indigenous Canadian Employee Resource Group.

She's a rugby player and enjoyed watching the sevens tournament last year in Vancouver. After last year's event, Sayer began wondering how to use the top-level tournament to promote the sport to Indigenous youth.

'You can do whatever you want'

What Sayer and her committee came up with was a day-and-a-half long event that got the teens free tickets to the tournament, but also had them take part in a rugby skills workshop.

Patricia Sayer, an employee at HSBC Canada, spearheaded the 'We Scrum As One' Indigenous youth rugby workshop. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"Part of it is a bit of mentorship ... being role models, showing them, you know, you can do whatever you want," said Sayer.

"Indigenous Canadians occupy all sorts of spaces in this society. Some of them aren't obvious, like rugby, but here we are. So it's just creating that space so they can be whoever they want to be," she said.

Rugby less popular in Indigenous communities

Nick Joe, 15, travelled from Ladysmith for the event. About 20 of the teens are from Vancouver Island, the rest from all over B.C. 

Joe has played rugby for years, but he's the only Indigenous player on his team.

"Most Aboriginal kids don't really play rugby. All they pretty much do is canoe paddle and soccer and lacrosse and all that," said Joe.

Nick Joe, 15 lives in Ladysmith, where he's played rugby for years. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"I'm just here to learn, get my skill up more — improve so I can show the B.C. Rugby coaches that I'm able to play up a higher level," he said.

Janessa Horne, 15, lives in Cowichan. She just started playing rugby last year, but has already taken to the sport.

"Honestly, when I first watched rugby, I thought it was harsh, but when I actually got tackled for the first time, I was like, 'it's not even that bad,'" said Horne. "I fell in love with it."

Janessa Horne, 15, says most Indigenous people in her community in Cowichan play soccer rather than rugby. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"I feel like there's not much First Nations playing ... In my community it's mostly soccer," she said, adding that she's not getting too worked up about the chance to meet a pro like Jen Kish.

"[I'm] not like my friend that's here," said Horne.  "She's like, 'oh my god, oh my god, Jen Kish.' I'm like, 'breathe, breathe.'"

For Kish, the event is a chance to get young players fired up about the game.

"To be able to come here and give back and help grow the sport of rugby is a huge honour, and it's just such a great way to play with the kids and see what they're passionate about," she said.

Canada Women's Rugby Sevens team captain and Olympic bronze medalist Jen Kish claps during a short break in a scrimmage with Indigenous teens in Vancouver. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker