When the Oak Park Raiders kick off their football game on Friday afternoon, they will wear special Truth and Reconciliation t-shirts loaded with imagery and imbued with pride.
“It’s been a little more emotional than I would have thought at first. It’s a big deal,” said coach Chris Ollson, whose team will debut the jerseys the day before National Truth and Reconciliation Day.
“It wasn’t too long ago that these colors and these images wouldn’t have been allowed on a uniform. It really makes it clear that this is something bigger than maybe we thought we were originally doing.”
The idea for the uniform came about two years ago, when Ollson asked player Dawson Andrews, who is from Dakota Tipi First Nation, if his father would like to give a pregame speech for the team and then toss the coin where were. We have given a name to the game of Truth and Reconciliation.
Andrews’ father is the chief of Dakota Tipi, which is west of Winnipeg, next to Portage la Prairie.
Last year, Andrews approached Ollson with the idea of creating a special sticker for the Winnipeg high school team’s helmets. That led to bigger conversation and ideas.
“We started drawing some things on the board… [and] It kind of snowballed into this beautiful uniform we have now,” Ollson said.
Once the decision was made to go all out and create a jersey, Andrews, 17, recruited his D-line teammate Rocco Linklater, who is from the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation in Nelson House.
“It was an incredible experience collaborating with other Indigenous youth for these t-shirts,” Andrews said.
Linklater came up with the idea of using Cree syllables to spell the Raiders’ name, Andrews said.
“We got them a couple of days ago, and they’re amazing to see, they’re amazing to see. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a jersey that has Indigenous representation in a high school league,” Andrews said.
“It’s an amazing feeling to be one of the first schools to do it.”
The shirts haven’t been worn yet, but are already getting rave reviews.
“The entire indigenous community on my reservation has heard about these shirts and they all want theirs, because that’s how shocking it is for them to see something like this,” Andrews said.
“Everyone says how proud they are of me and I’m sure Rocco is the same.”
The shirts are designed with various elements, such as a red handprint on one shoulder to represent MMIWG and an orange handprint on the other shoulder for Every Child Matters, a phrase associated with the Day of Truth and Reconciliation. .
One sleeve has an orange turtle, which represents safety and protection. On the other sleeve is a bison skull, which represents power and strength. The numbers are designed in a star blanket shape with various shades of orange.
The colors honor Phyllis Webstad who, in 1973, at the age of six, was stripped of her new orange shirt on her first day at a residential school in British Columbia. National Truth and Reconciliation Day is also known as Orange Shirt Day, a day to remember what happened to First Nations students in residential schools across Canada.
“We’re all going to do everything we can to represent these new shirts, to show how hard we fight for reconciliation at our school,” Andrews said.
The shirts were funded by Andrews’ father, so a Dakota Tipi patch recognizes that support.
The Northern Lights are also represented with a ghostly touch in the numbers. Ollson calls it “a gentle tribute to our ancestors… and also to the students in our program.”
Of the four largest high schools in the Pembina Trails School Division, Oak Park has the highest percentage of people who identify as Indigenous, said Ollson, who hopes the jerseys will encourage other school sports teams “to get similarly involved.” “.
The Oak Park football program has a rich history, with several alumni who have gone on to play professionally. Two of them, Nic Demski and Brady Oliveira, are currently with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Former bomber Andrew Harris is now with Toronto.
But for Ollson, the initiative shown by Andrews and Linklater is a much bigger success story.
“For them to represent the program, their school and the community in a positive way, that’s the best thing you can see,” he said.
Much to the disappointment of players who wanted them as souvenirs, the school will keep the reconciliation uniforms to wear annually, Ollson said.
“We want to make this a tradition, that we will do this when Dawson and Rocco are doing bigger and better things in life, that we still represent and wear these jerseys and shine a positive light for Indigenous youth.”
Andrews, who is in Grade 12, hopes to pursue Indigenous business studies at the University of Manitoba.
“So that after I finish university I can go out and help and support indigenous businesses, help them grow. I really want to come back and help my people and my community,” he said.
He plans to return to school to see those jerseys at the make-up games later.
“I will definitely return as an alumnus… because this program saved my life,” he said.
He lost his older brother to an overdose a few years ago and went to a dark place, he explained.
“I had nowhere to wait.”
Former Oak Park coach Stu Nixon approached him about joining the football team “and that became this big part of my life,” Andrews said.
“I don’t know where I would be right now without this football program. It will always be a part of my life.”