Ticats look to provide inspiration, opportunity for Indigenous youth

Emma General isn’t exactly a football fan. Her brother is, though – her cousin, too – and she has always wanted to know what all the fuss is about.

Now she gets it.

On Thursday, the 15-year-old from Six Nations was with them at Tim Hortons Field when the Hamilton Tiger-Cats bounced back to beat the Edmonton Eskimos as the clock ran out. They were part of a movement: the June Jones Youth Movement.

Named for the team’s head coach, the new program will give hundreds of Indigenous youth from Six Nations, New Credit and the Hamilton area the chance to attend a home game this season, as well as to talk to players and watch from the sidelines as they warm up.

It’s a partnership between the Tiger-Cats, LIUNA and the McMaster Youth Movement.

The latter, which operates under the direction of retired running back John Williams, works to improve opportunities, access and support for Indigenous student athletes and youth.

General, her brother and cousin were among the inaugural participants – a group of roughly 30 kids between aged 7 to 15 who know each other through Warrior Park Athletics, a Ninja warrior-style outdoor gym that opened up recently on the reserve.

The crux of the Tiger-Cats program is to expose young people like General to the game as well as the entire= organization. “They’re seeing themselves as trainers, they’re seeing themselves as coaches, ticket agents, marketers, ” said Williams, who connected with Jones through former special teams and defensive co-ordinator Jeff Reinebold.

“It’s just opening their eyes up to these experiences, seeing they can do these kinds of things.”

For Jones, the initiative was a natural fit. When Williams approached him, he had already spoken with a staffer at his namesake charity about doing something locally for those kids that, as he put it, “get lost in the shuffle.”

The June Jones Foundation provides grants, programming and support – even athletic equipment – to Polynesian families in need. He has deep roots in the islands – he was a quarterback at the University of Hawaii in the 1970s, coached the college’s team from 1999 to 2007 and frequently visits the football hotbed of American Samoa on aid missions and recruitment trips.

Jones believes Indigenous kids face the same barriers here as they do there. Sport is expensive – to play and to watch – and often difficult or even impossible to access.

This program aims to break down some of those barriers, including things as simple as transportation. The funding provided by LIUNA covers, among other things, the cost of busing the kids to the game and back home.

Without that, some of them wouldn’t have been able to get there Thursday even if they had tickets.

“The city buses don’t go to Caledonia, never mind on the reserve, ” said Taylor Hodgson, who was there as a chaperone.

In that sense, it’s not just the game, but the trip, the experience in its entirety, that makes this program special.

“I think a lot of them don’t even believe they’re here, ” she said. “It’s a huge exciting thing in their lives that they can go home and talk to their friends and families about.”

Hodgson, who lives in Caledonia, echoed Williams in calling the experience an eye-opener. It lets the kids see what’s possible, she said. That’s crucial.

“There is so much in the world that they can go out and do, even if it’s just training someone or exercising, ” she added.

The program is slated to run at the Tiger-Cats’ five remaining home games, but both Williams and Jones stress that this is just a starting point.

Jones, in particular, is adamant about following up with a fundraiser in the off-season, and, while he is still light on the details, there is one point on which he is insistent:

“We’re going to raise money to give back to those kids, ” he said.

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