Iroquois Roots Rugby’s U18 women might not have made it past the bowl semi-final at the Great North Sevens in Markham last month, but the team’s involvement in the tournament alone was testament to the work being done by founders Melanie Squire and Meagan Wilson.

The mother and daughter duo set up the programme in July 2017 with the ambition of taking rugby into the 133 First Nations in Ontario, to provide indigenous youth with a positive outlet and help rebuild a sense of community on the reserves.

Indigenous communities in Canada face a number of socio-economic and other challenges. Clean, safe water is not guaranteed, obesity is prevalent and unemployment and suicide rates – particularly among women – are much higher than the national average.

With that in mind, the sight of Ontario’s first all-indigenous women’s U18 team taking to Fletcher’s Fields to compete with the best age-grade sides in the province was an important one, regardless of results.

“It was really cool walking into the tournament, even just at the field everybody there had heard of us, everybody there was super excited to meet us and see us,” Wilson told World Rugby.

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“Everyone was already wearing our merchandise which was super crazy.

The rugby community 

“Obviously, our performance wasn’t the best but after every game the girls were saying what they were noticing, what they were learning.

“They were having fun with it which was great and people from the other teams were coming up and saying, ‘You are doing amazing work’.

“Not [saying it] to me, to the girls, and just boosting our confidence and helping them to realise that they were playing elite teams but they were doing well and they weren’t giving up or getting down on themselves.

“It was a huge moment for me, I was so proud.”

Squire added: “I think they gained experience, which they never had before, that was their first time in a game situation. They gained a sense of what the rugby community’s all about.”

Since the tournament in Markham both Squire and Wilson have witnessed an increase in engagement and enthusiasm at training sessions.

“The kids know now what they need to work on,” Squire said.

A learning experience

“We had a little chat about that the other day with the kids, and they were the ones giving us feedback. To say ‘Oh, now we know what to do in a scrum’, ‘Now I know exactly where my head should go’, that type of thing.

“And they were telling us what they wanted to work on for upcoming games and stuff like that. So that was great, and great feedback, it was just a great experience overall.”

Roots Rugby has held camps across Ontario in the past two years – all completely free of charge to those who take part – and estimate they have introduced rugby to 200 indigenous youths, aged between five and 19, in the province.

A lack of funding in 2019 has restricted their work to the reserve near Brantford on which both Squire and Wilson live, but they were able to field a boys' team alongside the girls at the Great North Sevens.

The response to the programme from the community has been “pretty supportive” according to Wilson, and has been amplified by the clips of action shared on social media.

A game for all

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Wilson began playing rugby while in the ninth grade of school, and she believes the sport is the perfect tool for the work that Roots Rugby aims to do.

“It’s super inclusive,” she said. “There’s something for everybody no matter what, and it’s also an easy sport to pick up just because all you need to play is a ball and some friends.”

Squire added: “A lot of the communities are very small, some are remote and you can only fly into them.

“So, there’s not a lot of recreation or even sports that are organised in these places, so what makes rugby perfect for these places is, you know, all we need is an open space and a ball to get a game going.

“That’s what makes it perfect. There’s no equipment needed, there’s no registration fees for parents to have to pay, you give the kids a ball and we play.”

Wilson was first alerted to the role rugby could play in indigenous communities when she joined Thunder Rugby while studying on Vancouver Island.

Thunder Rugby, whose head coach is Canada scrum-half and member of the Toquaht First Nation Phil Mack, was set up six years ago with the aim of introducing the game to aboriginal communities on the island in British Columbia.

Olympic dream 

Wilson initially joined as a player but eventually moved into coaching, with her and Squire travelling the 3,500km (2,175 miles) from their home in Ontario annually.

“I then returned to the [Thunder] programme as a coach for a couple of years and then I figured it doesn’t make sense for me to be flying across the country to do this work when I could just be doing it myself in Ontario,” said Wilson.

Squire and Wilson’s aim remains the same, to take rugby into as many of the 133 First Nations in Ontario as possible. The former estimates that with funding Roots Rugby could visit five communities before the end of 2019.

Grassroots programmes will be prioritised over competition, for the time being at least, but there is scope to support participants who display a desire to follow in Mack’s footsteps towards the Canadian national team.

“That is our ultimate dream for one of these kids,” Squire said.

“We recently did an interview with CBC here [and] one of our girls was being interviewed and I didn’t know that she had said this but [she said] it was her goal to play for the Canadian Olympic sevens team.

“So when I heard that I was like ‘OK, we’ve got to get her there’.”

Photos: Melanie Squire and Meagan Wilson