Thunder Bay

Lacrosse played for healing at youth detention centre

Canada's national game is being used to help young offenders in Thunder Bay learn the skills they will need to re-integrate into society when they are released.

Young offenders at Thunder Bay facility learn from pros

Members of the National Lacrosse League teach young offenders passing skills as part of a week-long training camp at the Justice Ronald Lester Youth Centre in Thunder Bay. (Jody Porter/CBC)

Canada’s national game is being used to help young offenders in Thunder Bay learn skills they’ll need to re-integrate into society when they’re released.

The partnership between the sports charity Right to Play, the National Lacrosse League and Ontario’s Ministry of Children and Youth Services is a first in the province.

Randy Sandvik, regional manager for youth justice services in the northern region says teens are much less likely to re-offend when they have access to healthy activities like sports. (Jody Porter/CBC)

"We hear it from youth all the time that if they have positive things to do — and involve themselves with positive adults — it does reduce re-offending," said Randy Sandvik, regional manager for youth justice services in northern Ontario.

One young offender, his netted stick still in hand, explained what the week-long training session taught him.

"I’ve learned friendship and respect," said the teenager, who cannot be named under provisions in the Youth Justice Act. "They tell us: ‘if you get hit, let it go, that’s the game’. Respect comes from that."

Chris McElroy, a National Lacrosse League player says he's learning a lot about resilience from the young offenders. He says he'll take those lessons with him into his games this season. (Jody Porter/CBC)

Learning on both sides

The professional athletes said they’re also getting a lot out of their time with the young offenders.

"We’ve learned from the kids as much as they’ve learned from us," said Chris McElroy of the Washington Stealth.

He said the young offenders taught him lessons of resiliency because "they still have a sense of humour after all they’ve been through."

"I’ll definitely be thinking of these kids throughout my training and my season," he added.

McElroy said he believes lacrosse is a "medicine game" capable of bringing communities together and healing troubled youth.

Allan Downie, member of the Nak'azdli First Nation in B.C., is a former elite lacrosse player who now studies the game. It's history as the creator's gift to First Nations people is the subject of his doctoral thesis. (Jody Porter/CBC)

Allan Downie agreed. The former elite player and member of the Nak’azdli First Nation in B.C. now makes studying the game his full-time work. The history of lacrosse is the subject of his PhD and he works with Right to Play to promote the game.

He said lacrosse is a gift from the creator to First Nations people.

"There are medicinal aspects to this game," Downie said.

"I’ve told the kids on numerous occasions that we’re playing in front of the creator, and the creator is watching you, so you carry yourself with that certain amount of respect for yourself and for the other players."

A healing game

The history of the game is especially relevant at the youth detention centre in Thunder Bay, where all 13 of the young men in custody come from First Nations.

Downie said the training this week is about much more than athletics. It’s about teaching future leaders.

Keith McKay is a remote community intervention worker in Kasabonika Lake First Nation. He says young people there need more healthy activities to keep them out of trouble. (Jody Porter/CBC)

The hope is that teens here will return to their communities with skills that will help them develop sports programs at home, where recreational activities are limited. Intervention workers from the offenders’ home communities are also at the centre this week to learn alongside the teens.

Youth worker Keith McKay said he’d never seen lacrosse before this week, but now he’ll look for funding to pay for equipment at home in Kasabonika Lake First Nation. He said young people there need healthy activities to keep them away from drugs and "home-brew."

"With the home-brew ... about five youths get together [and] they have a good time," McKay said. "[But] then they get into fights among themselves and that’s when they get into trouble."

Linda Cameron, is one of 14 a remote community intervention workers funded by the provincial government. She says she looks forward to seeing lacrosse being played in her community of Wabseemong, near Kenora. (Jody Porter/CBC)

Another youth worker, Linda Cameron from Wabaseemoong First Nation, said young people often struggle with the transition from a detention centre to life back at home.

"After they’ve been charged, they have that hanging over them and feeling like they won’t be able to re-connect," she said, adding a sport like lacrosse can help make everyone feel like equals.

"They’re back in the community and they really want to take part and we really try to support them and encourage them." 

The young offender, anxious to get back to the rink, said he can’t wait to show his cousins and his friends what he’s learned.

"I’m starting to learn lacrosse ... to like it ... actually I love it," he said with a smile, before heading back to the game.


Jody Porter

Senior Reporter

Jody Porter is a senior reporter based in Thunder Bay, Ont. She is the recipient of a Debwewin Citation from the Anishinabek Nation for excellence in reporting on First Nations issues and a Massey College Clarkson Laureate in recognition of public service.