By Chris Marchand
Eager players from Cat Lake and Muskrat Dam buzzed with nervous energy on the ice surface while the dignitaries did their thing at centre ice, opening a huge week for youth hockey in Northwestern Ontario, Monday.
The week-long 66-team Lil’ Bands Native Youth Hockey Tournament is the culmination of year-long fundraising efforts for most teams who arrive from remote communities by air or by winter roads from across the Far North to battle for bragging rights.
For Dryden it means booked-up hotels, busy restaurants and a brisk trade on local store shelves as visiting families take the opportunity to stock up on goods.
While play commenced on Sunday at the rink in Eagle Lake First Nation, Monday’s puck drop featured a host of regional Indigenous leaders, such as Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, Grand Council Treaty 3 Ogichidaa Francis Kavanaugh, Eagle Lake First Nation Chief Arnold Gardner and Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation Chief Esther Pitchenese. City of Dryden representatives included councilors Martin MacKinnon, John Carlucci, Roger Valley and Dryden Police Service Chief Doug Palson. Mayor Greg Wilson was travelling and unable to attend.
Such a high-profile puck drop might be expected in a challenging run-up to hosting the event as the city struggled with its association to Senator Lynn Beyak, whose controversial statements on the legacies of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools have enraged Indigenous communities both near and far and led to questions over the tournament’s future in Dryden. The situation prompted Dryden Mayor Greg Wilson to travel to Sandy Lake to meet with Chief Bart Meekis and appear on a Wawatay radio call-in program in an effort to ease tensions.
Grand Council Treaty 3 Ogichidaa Francis Kavanaugh says the simple act of gathering here in Dryden offers an opportunity for healing and understanding.
“The buzzword across Canada seems to be ‘reconciliation’ and I think this is one way of achieving that — big tournaments like this,” said Kavanaugh. “Bringing in people from up north, there’s 66 teams. It’s not only players, it’s parents, chaperones. It brings over a million dollars to Dryden every year. It’s about us working together and making Northwestern Ontario a better place to be. As First Nation communities and people, we’re not going anywhere. It’s not like when a mill closes in Fort Frances or Kenora — the people there leave the area, for us we’re always going to be here. That’s why I implore others to take a look at us in terms of developing partnerships and in tolerating one another’s existence.”
Councillor Martin MacKinnon spoke on behalf of the City of Dryden.
“The city has had the honour and privilege to host Lil’ Bands numerous times and we aim to create a welcoming space to host your tournament, anytime you wish to come,” said MacKinnon. “During this week spectators will bear witness to hockey in its purest form, fueled by an unrelenting love of the game. This is something wonderful to watch and I hope to see our residents, local businesses and newcomers here to watch you play.”