Fort Simpson soccer coach tired of seeing Yellowknife athletes get 'upper hand'
Community athletes say Team NT players in Yellowknife get to train more often, build rapport
Nearly every day of the week, Jackie Whelly heads to soccer practice with two young children and a baby in tow.
The soccer coach from Fort Simpson, N.W.T. is training six athletes in her community in preparation for this year's Canada Summer Games in August. And she's been trying not to let them see her frustration.
"The system is set up in a way for them to not even be able to show their true skill," she explained. "They're never really given the chance to show off what they have, because time and time again, tryouts are held in Yellowknife."
Whelly said athletes in Yellowknife get the "upper hand" when it comes to sporting opportunities, because players from communities have to make expensive trips to the city for tryouts and to most of the training camps if they're selected.
In November, a young soccer player from Norman Wells, N.W.T. was able to raise money he needed to travel to Yellowknife for training camps after also making the team. After reporting his story, CBC News learned he wasn't the only athlete on the hook for travel costs.
And, according to Whelly, travel isn't the only barrier athletes in smaller communities face.
"The girls in Yellowknife, they get options of extra practices. I know they're doing that in the summertime. So they're already building a rapport," said Whelly, referring to the relationships built between players and with coaching staff who usually live in Yellowknife too.
"Coaches already have an idea in their mind who they want to see [on the team]."
In her six years as coach, Whelly said she's never had anyone make Team NT for the Canada Summer Games before. This year marks a "turning point," she said, but it's often a challenge to encourage players to engage in the selection process.
"They don't want to try out because they already think that the team's already chosen. And it's hard for me to say 'No … everyone gets an equal chance' when time and time again they go and they're not chosen, and it's a mostly Yellowknife team."
What the players say
Jaicee Tsetso, 16, said she didn't think she was going to make the team, and was "really happy" to find out that she did. She's one of the six players from Fort Simpson to make Team NT.
Tsetso said getting to training camps is going to require a lot of fundraising, but she enjoys the opportunity to visit other communities and doesn't want that to change.
Players in Yellowknife, however, do get different opportunities, she said.
"They get to have like, little tournaments every now and then. But here in Fort Simpson, we don't really do that. There's not enough people."
Being able to practice more often would build rapport among team members, said Tsetso.
Brittany Kendo, another 16-year-old from Fort Simpson to make Team NT, said players in Yellowknife are also able to train more because there are more facilities.
"They have multiple gyms that they can attend to. In a small community, we only have one available gym. So for people who play other sports, or even soccer, if the gyms closed, nobody gets any practice in.
"Say we all meet together in the training. Some of us can obviously have improved [more] than others, and that's not really good for more of a team effort."
Another teammate, 13-year-old Amaria Tanche-Hanna, noticed a big difference in the team after a five-day training camp.
"They all know each other," she said, of the Yellowknife players. "We played so much better after that. We've got to … know everyone and how they play."
Equitable sports a 'big challenge'
Bill Othmer, acting executive director of Sport North, said making sporting opportunities more equitable in the N.W.T. is "front and centre" and it's on the agenda at every multi-sport games committee meeting.
Othmer said the organization is working on a multi-sport policy manual to try to address the issue, which he hopes will be finalized ahead of the Arctic Winter Games (AWG) in 2023. It will ensure there are standard policies for going to the AWG, the Canada Summer Games and the North American Indigenous Games, he said.
"Having generic rules and guidelines in place and making it consistent throughout the territory does alleviate barriers, at least from a rules perspective."
Prior to joining Sport North in 1991, Othmer was a recreational director in Tulita for six years.
"I've been in that position where I'm pushing for my athletes to stay motivated and get trained and get ready," he said. "The only thing that they can do, when I was there, is to be in top shape to be ready for when the opportunity comes."
Othmer said Sport North is also working on a team selection grant program. It doesn't have money attached to it yet, but it would help territorial sport organizations deliver unique ways of selecting teams for the upcoming Arctic Winter Games — which are taking place earlier in the year than normal.
For example, they could identify a coach that goes into communities to scout athletes, or they could hold a regional camp, he said.
But the policy manual and the grant program do not address many of the challenges that community athletes face.
"There are always going to be barriers that do happen especially ... in the small communities," Othmer said. "Having access to programs, services, equipment, things like that that, we need as a whole sports sector, we need to look at that and improve on it for sure."