August 6-21, 2022
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by: Carol Phillips


Ava Hill believes in the power of sport.

So when Niagara Region won the right to host the 2022 Canada Summer Games, she felt it was time to put lacrosse back on the Games schedule, where it hadn’t been played since 1985. 

The sport’s cultural and historical significance to Indigenous peoples, and their proficiency at it, presented an opportunity to include and empower Indigenous youth as they see members of their community compete at the highest levels.

“Lacrosse is what we call the Creator’s game,” said Hill, who was the elected chief of the Six Nations of the Grand River when she approached the host society back in 2017 about including the sport in the schedule. “It's something that we have been playing for thousands of years amongst the Haudenosaunee people.

“It's been used as medicine, and it's been used as well to settle disputes … Some of the best lacrosse players in the world are from Six Nations. It's very important to us as Indigenous people because of the history of it and because it's passed on to our young.”

Box lacrosse for both men and women are now on the competition schedule this August and will be played at Canada Games Park. Women’s lacrosse makes its debut the first week of the Games and the men’s competition returns after 37 years, during the second week.

A total of 324 male and female athletes will compete. That’s 18 athletes per team and nine teams in each competition. Each team will be accompanied by three coaches and a manager. Newfoundland, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and the Yukon will not field teams.

Hill is currently the vice chair of the Indigenous Programs for Right to Play and a board director for Commonwealth Sport Canada. She is also co-chair of a working group, along with the CEO of the International Commonwealth Games Federation, crafting a Declaration on Reconciliation with Indigenous People Through Sports.

“Our main purpose (with the Declaration) is that we want to support the young athletes coming up and tell them they can do it,” she said. “They have the ability to do it.”

Getting lacrosse on the Canada Games schedule is part of a longer campaign to see it at the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics – where a modified field game called “Sixes” will hopefully debut in 2028 in Los Angeles.

“Why I pushed for it is to give hope and inspiration to our young people,” Hill said. “That's why I'm involved in the whole sporting area. I've spoken many times at different sporting events and have said that sport teaches people many things. I know because my daughter was a swimmer. It taught her discipline. It taught her team-building, goal-setting, determination. It taught joy. It taught defeat. And it also gave them a number of opportunities to travel and to meet new friends that she's still friends with today. And so, I think all of those values will stay with them even if they're no longer involved in sports.”

Hill reached out to several people once she realized lacrosse wasn’t part of the Canada Games, including the Niagara 2022 Canada Summer Games board chair, Doug Hamilton.

Meanwhile, Hamilton was also being approached by the large local lacrosse community, whose St. Catharines Athletics organization dates back to 1877, as well as St. Catharines mayor, Walter Sendzik.

Sendzik said he saw the sport’s inclusion as part of the process of truth and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples “and looking at how the Canada Games can be a catalyst for continuing on this journey of reconciliation as a country.

“It was just a real opportunity to create the space for both -- on the reconciliation path, and then also at the same time looking at our history as a community and how we can bring those two together so we can have a unique and impactful Games that hopefully will include lacrosse, moving forward, for both men and women.”

Hamilton said it didn’t take much thinking to get on board. 

“I thought it was an excellent idea,” he said. “First of all, Indigenous inclusion is an important principle of the Games so including lacrosse is a natural fit. But really it’s also a natural fit for Niagara because this area is a hotbed of lacrosse.”

That didn’t make its inclusion automatic. The Canada Games Council determines what sports are to be included before the Games are put out to bid: 17 sports were on the schedule when Niagara won the bid in the spring of 2017, and lacrosse wasn’t one of them. So, the host society first had to go back to the Canada Games Council and ask them to add lacrosse. Then the Council had to go to the federal government and ask for more money because the funding formula was based on the number of sports.

But Hill had also contacted Eleanor McMahon, then the Ontario minister for tourism, culture and sport, who said she was as surprised as Hill to find out Canada’s national summer sport wasn’t already on the schedule. McMahon called her federal counterpart, Carla Qualtrough (Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities) to get the ball rolling. 

Both ministers had commitments to truth and reconciliation in their mandate letters so they agreed they would bring it up at the next Federal-Provincial-Territorial ministers meeting, scheduled for the 2017 Canada Summer Games in Winnipeg. It got unanimous support.

In April 2019, the new federal Minister for Science and Sport Kirsty Duncan announced it would add another $1.7 million in funding for the inclusion of lacrosse in the Games: $1.1 million for the host and $600,000 for the Canada Games Council to get the teams to Niagara.

“I hope this is a healing moment in the context of moments of reconciliation, and that this sends a positive signal that we value the sport of lacrosse, which in so many ways isn’t just a sport for that community in particular, but is culturally significant,” said McMahon, who is also a board member for the Niagara 2022 Canada Summer Games. 

The Niagara lacrosse community also gains from the re-introduction of the sport into the Games. Once playing out of aging arenas on concrete, it now has a brand-new facility with two pads that use portable artificial turf floors, similar to ones used in some of the best lacrosse facilities in the province and by professional indoor teams. The turf can be moved for use at the nearby 5,000-seat Meridian Centre or any other local arena. That will allow Niagara to bid to host national championships, national and professional training camps, and professional exhibition games. The St. Catharines Athletics junior A and B teams have already moved in and the local minor lacrosse association is also using the facility prior to the Games.

“Events like the Canada Games have the ability to completely alter the trajectory of a sport in the community,” said Dan Pilon, co-lead of lacrosse at the Games along with Michelle Race, on the opportunities that this new facility brings the region. “That’s why they’re so powerful.” 

The women’s competition takes place Week One with the bronze medal game scheduled for 2 pm and the gold medal game at 5 pm on Friday, Aug. 12 at Canada Games Park. The men’s competition takes place during Week Two of the Games with the bronze medal game at 12 pm and the gold medal game at 5 pm on Sunday, Aug. 21 also at Canada Games Park.

To celebrate the re-introduction of box lacrosse to the Canada Summer Games, an art book has been published by Small Walker Press in the Centre for Studies in Arts and Culture, Brock University. Authors Jason Stefanik, Marjorie Kaniehtonkie Skidders, Paul Savoie, and the Toronto Experimental Translation Collective present lacrosse from a creative perspective in Tewaaraton. La crosse / Lacrosse. The 40-page art book includes photography and creative texts in both English and French.  

Copies will be available for purchase at the Brock University event booth located at the Niagara Place festival site beside Canada Games Park. It will also be available at the Brock University campus bookstore and at Someday Books in downtown St. Catharines. Each copy costs $10 + tax.

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