02/09/2015 01:01 EST | Updated 04/11/2015 05:59 EDT

Basketball tournament in remote Quebec community a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ experience

In between basketball games at the Central Quebec School Board tournament this weekend, Christian Thibault and his teammates were introduced to traditions that have served the Naskapi for generations.

The tournament, the first of its kind ever held in the northern Quebec First Nations community, aimed to knit together two worlds through sport and tradition.

High school students from across central Quebec took part in workshops that included caribou skinning and butchering, ptarmigan plucking and ice fishing.

“I’m taking full of advantage since I’ve never done this and I’ll probably never do it again,” Thibault, a Secondary 4 student, said while plucking snow-white ptarmigan with two Naskapi women.

The tournament was held at the board’s northernmost school, Jimmy Sandy Memorial, in the Naskapi community of Kawawachikamach, located near the Labrador border, about 15 kilometres from Schefferville.

Students said they left Schefferville with a better understanding of First Nations communities and the Naskapi culture after the “once-in-a-lifetime” experience.

Some admitted they arrived in the community with cliché ideas about aboriginal people.

“[I had heard] that people are lazy. And they are not. I just saw firsthand at the game they all try really hard,” 16-year-old Cédrick Perreault said. 

He plans to return to Kawawchikamach next summer with two classmates to learn more about the Naskapi ways.

Hoop dream to reality 

Hosting the tournament in Kawawchikamach was the brainchild of the former principal of Jimmy Sandy Memorial, Curtis Tootoosis. He had been dreaming about it for a decade but only managed to sell the school board on the idea last year.

It cost about $190,000 to host the tournament. The money came from school surpluses, Ministry of Education grants for cultural exchanges, a gift from the Naskpi Band Council and donations.

Much of the organization fell into the hands of the former vice-principal, Joanne Strasser, who took over Tootoosis position as principal in January.

“I think they finally see us more than the school from the north with the First Nations kids," she said.

"They see us as everyday kids but they have a better perspective of where we are coming from and the difficulties and the lifestyle that we lead."

Community pride

Students from Jimmy Sandy Memorial have always had to travel outside of the community to participate in tournaments, so their parents and friends never have the opportunity to see them play. 

During local games at this weekend's tournament, the spectator side of the gym was so full, some fans’ feet were on the court.

Naomi Einish took the day off work to watch her daughter play for the Jimmy Sandy Memorial Hawks.

“I’m proud of her, win or lose she’s a winner to me,” she said.

Her daughter, Secondary 1 student Ruby-Jade Jake, said being able to play in front of friends and family made her “feel proud. For once.”

That comment brought tears to the eyes of several teachers and staff members. 

The tournament may have been driven by competition, but being able to play in front of loved ones was definitely exciting for the young players, said coach Cory Meehan.

“That’s the cherry on top of this whole basketball cake,” she said. 

'Everyone is ecstatic' 

The boys’ team from Jimmy Sandy Memorial ​won a banner in the B-division of the tournament.

“I think you can tell on everybody’s faces in the crowd or on my team that everyone is ecstatic,” said coach Kyle Schroeder.

Shane Peastitute,15, was all smiles as he carried his seven-month-old daughter on the court after the game.

“I feel great! I’m happy she’s here to watch me play,” he said.

Peastitute won the most valuable player award on his team.

Strasser said all the planning and preparation paid off and the weekend was a great success.

The principal said she hopes the tournament comes back to her community one day.

“But not next year,” she added.