Mother-daughter duo Melanie Squire and Meagan Wilson are bringing rugby to Indigenous communities across Ontario.
The sport isn’t common among Indigenous youth – its competitors of hockey, baseball and especially lacrosse, reign supreme.
But since Iroquois Roots Rugby started, it’s been love at first sight for the players.
“The kids that come to our camps walk in not knowing a thing about rugby, never having seen a rugby ball, and by the time we leave, we’re having to call them off the field,” said director Melanie Squire. “They don’t want to quit playing.”
The group has been running free training camps across Ontario for the past two years. Head coach Meagan Wilson, 22, teaches introductory skills to players of all ages. After playing with the Thunder Indigenous Rugby Program in Victoria and then at McMaster University, she was inspired to bring the game closer to her home of Six Nations of the Grand River.
Wilson is passionate about the sport because of its accessibility. She says that there’s a position for everybody — no matter your skills or body size. And while other sports need pricey equipment and built-up facilities, all rugby needs is an open space.
“It’s something fun you can do constantly,” Wilson said. “All you really need to work on your skills is a ball and a buddy.”
Iroquois Roots Rugby ran a pilot program two years ago in Six Nations. For a month, kids aged 5 to 16 came out one night a week to learn rugby skills. They held a party at the end, and kids were awarded certificates. Throughout the camps, Roots gives water, snacks, a healthy meal, and prizes like t-shirts or wristbands to the players. They also leave a ball behind.
Giving a full experience for the kids means a lot of work behind the scenes. But organizers say it’s worth it.
“We’re just stretching as many funds as we can get as far as we possibly can to do as many camps as we possibly can,” said Wilson. “It’s fun to get out there and get the kids moving around.”
Since then, the duo has visited seven communities, including Curve Lake and Tyendinaga. Wilson says the number of participants increases each time. They were able to create an U18 girls team to enter the Great North 7s tournament in Markham earlier in July. They also entered a U18 boys team in collaboration with Upright Rugby.
The pair hopes to key into high-performance training in order to prepare kids for a potential future for rugby in the North American Indigenous Games.
Right now they’re visiting places they can drive to, but they hope to visit more. And driving several hours to an open field is no problem for the mother-daughter team. They both like country music, and family makes it worth the mileage. Squire said that the girls are already starting to call her mom.
“I’d be the team mom regardless, I’d just appoint myself,” said Squire. “It means that much more to me that I can do something like this with my daughter.”
But for many, the topic of rugby comes with the question of safety. Most recently, Nova Scotia put high school rugby on pause to evaluate the dangers. The concern is focused around concussions. Wilson says that proper training makes the difference for training.
“Especially if you’re being taught properly how to fall, how to tackle…” she said. “Concussions can happen any time, just like playing any other sport.”
The group plans to visit all 133 first nations communities in Ontario. And Squire says they’re not stopping any time soon.
“However long it takes us to get there, that’s how long we’ll do it.”