North American Indigenous Games

Residential school survivor now coaching at Indigenous Games

Through soccer, Alex Nelson found his saving grace during his time at a residential school and now he's helping encourage and educate young players.

B.C. soccer team changes name to ‘94 Calls’ to honour coach Alex Nelson

Alex Nelson is the coach of Team B.C. U16 soccer team and a residential school survivor. (Indigenous Sport, Physical Activity and Recreation Council)

He is 70 years old and a residential school survivor.

Alex Nelson has had a long, difficult and winding journey over the years. But this week he's never felt more inspired, energized and youthful in his life. In some respects, he's living out the childhood he never had.

Nelson is coaching Team British Columbia's under-16 men's soccer team at the North American Indigenous Games this week.

"This soccer team though, [you've] got 18 young spirits who are a family now," he said. "It's been tremendous watching that growth. Using sport as a vehicle to rebuild is what's unfolding in front of us."

Reconciliation has always been in Nelson's blood.

At just seven years old, he was taken from his family and sent to a place north of Vancouver Island. It was called Alert Bay and St. Michael's residential school is where Nelson would spend the next seven years of his life.

Alex Nelson is helping educate his young players about the impact that residential schools had on his generation. (Indigenous Sport, Physical Activity and Recreation Council)

"It took us away from family and community," he said. "And those are the major reasons for a lot of the state we're in right now. I'd like to think family and community is our core and that being taken away is where the scars come from."

While so much of what Nelson loved about life was taken away, the silver lining was playing soccer at the school in the evenings or after class. There were about 30 people his age, many who would also play soccer with him.

"It created bonds within the school itself," Nelson said. "It was an opportunity to get out there, play and be free. And be with your friends and having fun."

"It was my saving grace. My sanity in that residential school."

Team B.C. becomes '94 Calls'

More than a year ago as this team was preparing to qualify to represent B.C. at the Indigenous Games, Nelson opened up and shared his story with the players. He talked about what life was like inside the residential school, how he'd been taken away from his family and how soccer became his lifeline.

The players and other coaches were so moved they decided to rename their team "94 Calls" based on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's (TRC) 94 calls to action.

"It starts to help explain to them why some of their parents are struggling and what's been transferred over to them," Nelson said.

"The intergenerational effects are very easily seen by us but it's the young people who need to know why it is the way it is."

Nelson said the team not only wanted to honour what he and so many others had been through but also raise awareness about the TRC.

Soccer has been a big part of Alex Nelson's life and provided him with refuge as a child in the residential school system. (Justine Johnson)

"The intent was to create curiosity amongst the soccer community and sure enough it started to emerge that way," he said. "It's served its purpose of everyone being mindful that these schools did exist and what we're doing right now is responding to it in a powerful, healthy way."

Now, 94 Calls has joined forces with the Indigenous Games' movement of Team 88 and Nelson says it's remarkable to see what's unfolding. Team 88 refers to the TRC's call to action asking all levels of government to ensure Indigenous athlete development and continuing support for the Indigenous Games. 

"I'm just so grateful that I have the opportunity to continue the soccer piece of my life and pass this experience to the young ones," he said. 

"It's full circle for me. This is a place to have the freedom to do what we do and how we do it. I see that right now. Whereas before, that freedom wasn't there."

Leaving a legacy

Nelson still plays soccer to this day. It's been a constant in his life since those early days in the residential school.

It's his way of showing thanks to a sport that provided a life of opportunity for him. Nelson has attended every Indigenous Games since its inception in 1990. He's been the chair of the NAIG Council on five occasions.

He even had a role in establishing the Aboriginal Sports and Recreation Association of BC. Nelson knows in the most profound way what sport has meant to him in his life.

"More than anything it taught me leadership," he said.

"And now being at these Games and watching thousands and thousands of young spirits, you just say, 'wow.' That's a lot of hope, dreams and aspirations."

So far, 94 Calls is unbeaten in the soccer tournament through two games. The team plays its final preliminary round game tonight against New York before heading to the playoffs.

Win or lose, it doesn't really matter to Nelson at this point. He's never been more proud of his heritage. And the message to the young Indigenous men is one of encouragement and resilience.

"I just told them, be here, you've already won your gold. Go and enjoy it. Be the best you can. That's all you can ask," he said.

"Winning is one thing but what it leads to in different ways, everyone is a winner."


Devin Heroux

CBC reporter

Devin Heroux reports for CBC News and Sports. He is now based in Toronto, after working first for the CBC in Calgary and Saskatoon.