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Rixford Cardinal cradles the ball during a lacrosse scrimmage in Saddle Lake on Aug. 11., with defender Napew Cardinal in hot pursuit.
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Saddle Lake lacrosse camp unites culture and athletics

Aug 19, 2014 12:30 pm | Jon Svec

Loretta Cardinal wanted to make a difference in Saddle Lake Cree Nation. The former addictions counsellor decided to take a hard look at her community - the place she lives, the place she is raising her five sons - and she decided that things could be better.

“I hear about all the violence, and all the shootings and all the gangs and all the drugs and alcohol . . .” Her voice trails off at that point, her eyes low to the ground. “It’s sad, really,” she manages to add.

Her observations soon turned to action, as she realized the burden of improvement is not hidden in some far off place, but instead resting on her very shoulders, and those of her fellow community members.

“I’m just a stay-at-home mom now, but you know what, it’s people like me that have to start making the difference in our community,” she said in a determined voice. “We want to live in a good place, we want our kids to grow up in a good place, and we want to retire in a good place and leave it with our sons and our daughters who are going to take care of us as we grow old. And if we don’t teach them right now, then . . .”

She knew that something needed to be done, something directed at the community’s youth, something invigorating and accessible and engaging. Suddenly it occurred to her: why not lacrosse?

It seemed the perfect solution; something that would introduce physical activity and teamwork while at the same time staying true to their cultural roots. “This is our game,” she said. “We are spiritual beings, we are spiritual people . . . The story we tell our children about this game is that they take on a spiritual being that helps them - whether it be the bear spirit, or the wolf spirit - and that’s the one that they think about and pray to, and it helps them through their playing.”

Idea in hand, she was ready to move forward with her plan. She knew they needed to start small, and she decided a day camp would be the perfect jumping-off point.

They would probably need a little funding to get started, so she went and approached the appropriate authorities. “I went to see Chief and Council, and they said, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t help you,’” she recounted, shaking her head. But she didn’t stop there.

She contacted her sister, who is the vice principal of the local high school, in order to see about equipment. She also contacted Lisa Grant at the Alberta Lacrosse Association (ALA).

The gear they had at the school was pretty dated, but she didn’t know how bad it was until she received some input from a more knowledgeable source. “The lady at the Alberta Lacrosse Association, she’d never seen that kind of lacrosse stick - they were that old,” she laughed. For their part, however, the ALA didn’t stop at the good-hearted jab. Instead, the organization stepped up and donated a large bag of lacrosse gear to the community, complete with 30 new sticks and some balls.

In order to bring some instructors into the community, Cardinal contacted Kavis Reed, a former CFL coach and the owner of North Point Sports Development. “These guys were kind enough to come out for free,” Cardinal said.

Two skilled instructors were sent to the community on Aug. 11 to lead the young athletes through a day of lacrosse drills, skills and games at the powwow grounds. Dallas Smith, a varsity lacrosse player for the Division I Binghamton Bearcats in New York, joined forces with Kaveer Hazrah, a varsity lacrosse player for Carlton University in Ottawa, in order to instruct 16 eager youths.

According to Smith, their goal for the day was to start right from scratch and instill some basic skills.

“We want to lay kind of a foundation, so if these kids do decide to play, they have some idea of how to play the game, and how to play it the right way,” he said.

The pair kept things exciting for the kids, and certainly seemed to know their audience, which ranged from 5-16 years of age.

“With kids, you lose their attention really fast unless you keep it interesting,” Smith said. “You have to incorporate games that reinforce their skills. I think it’s really important to keep it fun. If it’s fun, then they’ll come back to it, where if it’s dry and boring, the next time they have the opportunity to play lacrosse, they may pass.”

The goal of the day, as originally intended by Cardinal, was to take the first step towards building a positive alternative for the community’s youth. “Really what we want to do is build lacrosse in communities that don’t have lacrosse,” Smith said. “And lacrosse is an aboriginal game, so to not see it in aboriginal communities, I think it’s a shame.”

As for Cardinal, she intends to keep moving forward. The ultimate goal would be for Saddle Lake to one day field a lacrosse team in a league. They may have a little ways to go before getting there, but the interest has already been sparked in at least a few young community members.

One such member, Thoen Dion, was impressed with what he learned at the camp, and was able to use his new skills to net a few goals in the scrimmage. He admitted that he hadn’t played much lacrosse before the event, but also said the day of development has him considering the idea of joining a team.

“It was a good experience,” he said.

Such experiences, as Cardinal has found out, don’t arise without the hard work and perseverance of the people behind the scenes. Though the road ahead seems long, those all-important first steps have already been taken, and Cardinal seems up for the journey.

“I’m not going to let this die,” she said.

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