'Rez Girls' hockey team pursues reconciliation while chasing victory

The journey to Ottawa for the Rez Girls hockey team from Ontario's Eabametoong First Nation started as a "pipe dream" but became a reality after the team was able to raise more than $120,000.

The hockey team named after their Fort Hope, Ont., reserve raised more than $100,000 to join tournament

Allison Norman, manager for the Rez Girls 64 hockey team, spoke with CBC's Judy Trinh about bringing the girls from Eabametoong First Nation to Ottawa. 1:09

The journey to the capital for the Rez Girls hockey team from Ontario's Eabametoong First Nation started as a "pipe dream" but became a reality after the team was able to raise more than $120,000. 

While in Ottawa, the 16-member team from will play against other girls teams for the first time. 

The First Nation also known as Fort Hope, Ont., is a remote reserve 360 kilometres north of Thunder Bay that can only be accessed by plane in the summer and ice roads in the winter.

Team manager Allison Norman says it took a year and a half to raise enough money from private and corporate donors to charter a plane, book hotel rooms and pay tournament fees.

"It was a bit of a pipe dream in the beginning to think we could raise the funds, but we wanted to give it a try," she said.

"Because it was Canada's 150th birthday [last year] we set our hopes really high on Ottawa."

Most of the team had never been to Ottawa before. (Toni Choueiri/CBC)

Norman says the team wrote letters to corporations and charitable foundations and also started a crowdfunding campaign.

A Kingston couple helped raise more than $3,000 for the team to attend an Ottawa Senators game while in the capital.

Norman says the generous donations from across Canada are allowing the team to experience the "trip of a lifetime."

While in Ottawa, the group of girls between the ages of 10 and 12 years old have watched a 3D movie, toured Parliament, visited the Canadian Museum of History and watched the RCMP Musical Ride team practice.

"Everything has been a 'wow' moment to them," said Norman, who has seen no shortage of amazement in the players.

She said they marvelled at the sight of a skunk and the size of the trees.

"This trip has been quite the adventure. Many of these girls only leave the reserve for medical appointments," she said.

"They never get to go to a bigger city other than Thunder Bay."

Hungry for a win

For the past year, the Rez Girls have been working hard on improving as a team.

Eleven-year old goalie Danielle Jacob has been practicing her butterfly technique, while 12-year-old forward Twylah Waswa has been drilling down on her crossovers and stickhandling.

When asked what she wants from the tournament, Jacob said "a win" immediately.

She expects it to be an easier feat to accomplish since the competitive field is more even.

"The boys are bigger, they've played longer … I think it will be easier playing against the girls," she said.

We hear about the Rez girls 64 and their hopes for reconciliation, on ice. 5:55

And before Waswa takes to the ice, she needs to take care of one more craving.

She wants to go to McDonalds and get an Oreo McFlurry.

She's hoping it's a special treat that will lead to a win.

Hockey and reconciliation

But this trip is building bridges along with playing hockey.

The Rez Girls team was only formed last year and has not, until their participation in this year's Kanata Girls Hockey Association Tournament, played against other girls teams.

Before this week, the Indigenous girls only had two options, to play hockey against each other or compete against boys teams.

Leslie Campbell is coach of the Rez Girls hockey team from Eabametoong First Nation in Fort Hope, Ont. (CBC)

The peewee level team did participate in a tournament against boys last year in Thunder Bay. 

They did not win a single game, or score a single goal.

A CBC documentary on that journey can be found here:

The Thunder Bay tournament was also marred by racism, including one in which teenagers in the stands called the Rez Girls a racial slur as they walked into the arena in their team jerseys.

"The words we use are powerful and whenever we are speaking about anyone … there should be zero tolerance about derogatory terms around First Nations people being used," said the team's head coach Leslie Campbell.

While in Ottawa, the Rez Girls hockey team got to experience a bunch of "firsts" including visiting the RCMP Musical Ride. (Judy Trinh/CBC)

Campbell says the incident upset the girls, but did not crush their spirit.

She's hoping their experience in Ottawa will be a small but powerful example of reconciliation efforts in Canada.

"We hope that we could use this trip to bridge First Nations and non-First Nations people," she said.

Campbell hopes the Eabametoong girls will share their culture and unique stories with the other hockey players they interact with.

The 27-year old coach is also hoping her young players will find inspiration when they get a chance to meet with university womens hockey players on the weekend.

About the Author

Judy Trinh

CBC Reporter

Judy Trinh is a veteran reporter with the CBC. She covers a diverse range of stories from breaking crime news to human rights issues. She aims to find the human element in all her stories. Contact her: Judy.Trinh@cbc.ca