CBC listeners help make these girls' hockey dreams come true
When the Rez Girls 64 encountered racism at a 2017 tournament, Canadians rallied to get them on the ice again
By Julia Pagel
The girls of Eabametoong First Nation are fighters.
Last year a group of young girls from this remote First Nation in northern Ontario, also known as Fort Hope, set to work to get their own hockey team — the first-ever girls' hockey team in their community.
It was a big undertaking. The girls had to ask a new teacher, Leslie Campbell, to be their coach. They had to find equipment, and get their skills up to snuff. And, eventually, they got their team together. After a season of practice, the Rez Girls 64 were off to Thunder Bay for their first ever tournament.
The girls put in a strong showing on the ice, and though they didn't win a game, they played their hearts out. But there was a dark cloud over their experience.
In Thunder Bay the girls were racially harassed — in the arena, out and about in town — and coach Leslie Campbell said she would never return with her team.
But that didn't mean they were ready to give up. In fact, Leslie and the team set their sights even higher for the following year. They wanted to travel to our nation's capital to play in an all-girls tournament.
That's where our first documentary, from 2017, ended: with the girls' determination to go to Ottawa and play in nearby Kanata, Ont. (You can listen to it in the shaded box at the top of this page, or go here.)
It wasn't going to be easy to get there. Rez Girls 64 needed to raise over $100,000 to fund the girls' trip from their remote First Nation.
It was a huge sum of money to gather, and they got to work on fundraising. The Rez GIrls 64 gathered support from corporate donors, but they also benefited from an unexpected group: CBC Radio listeners. After hearing last year's doc, Doc Project listeners reached out to us, asking to be put in touch with coach Leslie Campbell. GoFundMe campaigns started up. People were coming together for the cause.
The doc about the girls' hockey team was both heartwarming and wrenching. I immediately wanted to help. Thank you for sharing the story.- Joanna Brown, Kingston, Ont.
Thanks to the outpouring of support, the Rez Girls reached their funding goal and in late March 2018, the girls were packing their hockey bags for Ottawa.
All kinds of activities had been planned and donated for the girls: there were visits to the RCMP horse stables, an Ottawa Senators game, trips to the museum... oh, and playing hockey.
Game day was finally here. The girls were in the hotel lobby, dressed in their tracksuits, hockey bags in hand, well before coach Leslie had told them to be. They loaded onto the bus, music blaring as they drove to the rink.
The girls had been practicing twice as hard this year, and were completing drills that coach Leslie wouldn't have even attempted last year. So hopes were high for at least one win.
That first game was a bit of a learning experience. As the girls cycled on and off the bench, they would tell Leslie that "the ice is slippery!" The girls were used to playing on rough natural ice, so the smooth surface of the rink was a bit of an adjustment.
Despite their struggle on the ice, the girls were getting big love from the stands, and not just from Leslie and the other parent chaperones from their community. People who had heard about the Rez Girls 64, either from the Doc Project doc or on the local news, were coming to the stadium to support the girls.
People like Sharron Davies, from the Kanata area. She heard our doc live on the radio last year. After that, Sharron got in touch with us, and we put her in touch with Leslie. Sharron said she wanted to help when the girls were in Kanata. "I'd like to be your mom locally. So I'll grab fruit platters… I usually make brownies for our teams," said Sharron.
Sharron, a quilter, also wanted to show the girls support from the stands. "I can't draw, so I decided to make a quilt instead, because in my world that's easier." The result was a quilted banner that took her about 40 hours to make.
With help from the Kanata Quilting Guild, Sharron was able to give every team member of Rez Girls 64 their own personal quilt.
"In the quilting world, giving a quilt is just like giving a hug."
At the Rez Girls' games, Sharron and Leslie say they kept running into people who had heard the Doc Project doc, and felt moved to do something to support the girls. By their third and final game on Saturday, Sharron says there were about 200 people in the stands, many there just to support Rez Girls 64.
The crowd would whip into a frenzy whenever a member of the Rez Girls got hold of the puck. In the second period, Twylah Waswa had a break away, and took off alone down the ice. "The crowd went bananas," says Sharron.
When Twylah's shot went in, "it was like they won the Stanley Cup," Leslie says. "It was magical."
Though they didn't win a game, the girls returned the Fort Hope to a hero's welcome. The whole community met them at the airport, and the school hosted a feast.
Now the Rez Girls 64 quilt, handmade by their fan Sharron Davies, hangs with pride in the school gym.
To hear the full story, listen to our update documentary by clicking "Listen" at the top of the page. Or, download and subscribe to our podcast so you never miss a show.
This documentary update was produced by Julia Pagel.