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Aboriginal Airline, University Partner to ‘Reach Up!’

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Can enjoying sports promote healthier lifestyles, community leadership and university attendance among First Nations youths from fly-in-only communities in Northwestern Ontario?

Wasaya Airways and Lakehead University in Thunder Bay believe it can, and on November 21 launched “Reach Up! Northern Community Sports and Leadership Program” to fly university athletes and coaches into those remote towns to hold coaching seminars for adults and sports clinics for resident youth.

“Youth and education are very important to our shareholders,” said Tom Morris, president and CEO of Wasaya Airways, a service owned by 11 First Nations that serves 21 First Nations communities. About 35 percent of its 430 employees are from First Nations.

Wasaya, which means “rising sun” in Oji-Cree, will provide transportation for the university athletes and coaches, who will spend three to five days in different communities.

“They will go to the schools and they will hold camps and they will be role models, as well as mentors, to the First Nation students,” said Morris, who is from Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (Big Trout Lake) First Nation. “The overall aim … is to create a fun learning experience.”

Tom Warden, director of Lakehead University Athletics, began exploring options with John Beardy, a sales representative of Wasaya Airways. They wanted to create a program similar to Right to Play, an international initiative that uses sports to improve the lives of children in disadvantaged areas around the world.

“Sports is the medium. And the message is, first of all, that education is important,” said Warden. “The other messages are that we all have challenges and we all have things in our lives that are difficult. We can work through things.”

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The program also will promote healthy, active lifestyles. “I hope that they’ll have lots of fun,” Warden said. “One of the things we want to do … is to provide hope and a mentor. ‘I can go to university, I can do these things,’ that’s the idea.”

Getting aboriginal youths to consider postsecondary education is an important goal for Lakehead, said University President Brian Stevenson. “We know that changing the face of education for aboriginal students is a long journey, but when we work together with partners like Wasaya and our Lakehead athletes, we become stronger together. Over 1,000 aboriginal students are enrolled at Lakehead University; we want to see that number increase.”

The communities will offer room and board for the university visitors. Lakehead intends to tailor each visitation to community needs. Coaches will offer clinics to local leaders, and youths can participate in clinics for hockey, basketball, volleyball and other sports.

Local residents—young and old—will not be the only beneficiaries, Warden said, as was evident from a pilot visit by Thunder Wolves hockey team members to Eabametoong, or Fort Hope First Nation.

“By all accounts it was a very positive experience and certainly a culture shock for some of our kids,” Warden said. Many athletes involved, including one player from Sweden, want to return.

Morris agreed that the experience can grow “a better understanding of the aboriginal culture” for the athletes, though some will have relevant experiences to share.

“Some of these athletes are from smaller towns,” he said. “They’re aware of the small-town kid trying to make it into the university. They will share that. Through that way, it builds character and leadership.”