At McGill, a case study in scholarships for Indigenous student-athletes

Still in its early years, scholarship presents the first model of its type in Canada

Queen’s currently doesn’t have a scholarship for Indigenous athletes.
Queen’s currently doesn’t have a scholarship for Indigenous athletes.
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In 2016, McGill’s lacrosse team welcomed its first Indigenous student-athlete to the program, Kieran McKay.
 
The team’s current Head Coach, Nicolas Soubry, said it was an inflection point for then-head coach, Tim Murdoch.
 
“I think it was a wake-up call that we’re not really doing our job recruiting and getting our message out there that we want [Indigenous] players,” Soubry told The Journal.
 
In 2017, while Canada was celebrating the 150th anniversary of Confederation, Murdoch brought up the idea of installing a scholarship for Indigenous student-athletes on McGill’s lacrosse team with Jim Calder, a board member of the Canadian Lacrosse Foundation. Pulling from various donors, a university-supported online fundraising page, and other sources, Murdoch and Calder reached the necessary goal of $80,000 to endow the fund, allowing it to be distributed in perpetuity.
 
When total donations hit the $80,000 mark, the scholarship became one of the first of its kind in Canada. While it was intended for Indigenous players on the lacrosse team, the terms state that if there aren’t any Indigenous players on the team in a given year, it will still be awarded to an Indigenous student-athlete on another team.
 
“We were basically looking for anyone to help us with our idea that we should be helping our student athletes come to McGill and enjoy the sport that they created, and that is so much a part of their culture that we as a community don’t understand completely,” Soubry said.

Starting the scholarship during the country’s 150th anniversary allowed the team to recognize, in a small way, that the origination of the game stretches far further back than 150 years. 
 
Modern-day lacrosse, Canada’s national summer sport, descends from games played by countless Indigenous communities in Canada as early as the 17th century. The shape of the game was far different in its early days: matches would last entire days, pitches sometimes spread up to nearly 10 kilometres long, and there were no out-of-bounds. But the core of the game—which involved passing a ball with netted sticks in pursuit of scoring on an opposing team—has remained a constant feature of the game.
 
In the 1700s and 1800s, European colonists started adapting lacrosse. Most notably, Canadian dentist William George Beers founded the Montreal Lacrosse Club in 1856—in the process, he shortened the length of the game, redesigned the stick and ball, and shrunk the number of players on the field. Within the next 10 years, lacrosse became Canada’s national sport, even receiving the endorsement of Queen Victoria—and effectively distancing lacrosse from its Indigenous roots.
 
This history of settler Canadians taking ownership over the sport was, in part, what propelled the team to start the scholarship.
 
“It was really a colonization of the sport,” Soubry said. “I think something we wanted to do was understand that and try to, with the small amount we have, give back to the community that gave us this sport. That was kind of the idea behind it.”
 
Despite fears of being unable to raise enough funds for the scholarship, support blew in from all directions, getting it on its feet just over a year after fundraising began. For the 2019-20 academic year, it was distributed for the first time, being awarded to three Indigenous players on the lacrosse team: Hunter Zawada, Kerry Kane, and the team’s first Indigenous player, McKay. Each student received $2,000 for the year, which Soubry said he hopes will increase over time. Still, the award covers team fees, with some left over.
 
McKay, who came to McGill from Richmond, B.C., said he hopes to see the scholarship have effects on the program in the long run—and has already seen the potential benefits borne from it.
 
“There’s nothing really like it in Canada, and I’m just hopeful for the future. I was just pleased we were able to get this funded before I leave the program. I hope it gives a little bit more incentive for Indigenous student-athletes to come to McGill, especially lacrosse players,” he said, noting Zawada and Kane as two additional Indigenous students to join the team since he arrived in 2016.
 
He said the scholarship’s dual purposes of recognizing the game’s history while tangibly serving future Indigenous students is encouraging.
 
“I personally don’t think [lacrosse is] recognized as much as it should be […] I think it’s a great way to have a way to honour the game in Canada while benefitting the future generations of players who will benefit from the scholarship itself,” he said.
 
As it stands, the scholarship remains one of the few—if not the only—of its kind in Canada. 
 
In a statement to The Journal, Leslie Dal Cin, executive director of Queen’s Athletics and Recreation, said the department is be open to creating awards for Indigenous student athletes.
 
“Fundraising for [Athletic Financial Awards]’s are and has been a priority for Athletics & Recreation over the past number of years and we are always talking to alumni about the opportunities and support that AFA’s provide to student-athletes, and we will continue to do so. We would welcome the opportunity to establish awards for Indigenous student-athletes,” Dal Cin wrote.
 
As the scholarship becomes a mainstay for McGill’s lacrosse team, Soubry said he hopes Indigenous representation continues to increase, which he believes will have a further-reaching impact on the team.
 
“A lot of teams in the U.S. and Canada, there’s a lot of teams that don’t have that Indigenous influenc e, and I think the more we have that on our team, it’s going to help us develop into maybe better people or more understanding people outside of lacrosse,” Soubry said.
 
“Because that’s the goal of university sport: to graduate as someone who’s evolved or developed into someone who’s more knowledgeable about the world around them.”
 

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