This football season, in neighbourhoods throughout the city, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are running the #ForTheW campaign.
You’ve likely seen the billboards, connecting local communities with the team’s journey.
Meanwhile, the CFL team has also been building ties with dozens of far-away communities in northern Manitoba, creating hope and inspiring reconciliation along the way.
"I can’t believe I’m here," 16-year-old Kathy from God’s Lake First Nation said Thursday, looking out at a near-full IG Field.
"This is the most people I’ve ever seen," added Arlen, 15.
A few hours previous, a Perimeter Airlines charter flight landed with 40 Cree youth and their chaperones from God’s Lake and Manto Sipi Cree Nation. They were met with banners, held by Bombers and airlines staff, featuring each community’s name.
The excitement was overwhelming.
For many, a Bombers game is a Thursday night; for these children, it’s a memory for a lifetime.
"This is all intended to give these kids an opportunity," explained Nick Vodden, chief executive officer of Perimeter Airlines, "and show them we care."
It’s the third year of a partnership between Perimeter, the Blue Bombers, and the Victoria Inn. It is a program intended to give northern youth reasons to stay in school; communities choose the youth to come and the rest is provided — from flight to hotel to tickets for the game.
"It’s an investment in the communities we serve," said Mike Pyle, CEO of Exchange Income Corporation (who owns Perimeter), "an investment that begins with the kids."
God’s Lake Narrows is about 550 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg; Manto Sipi is a bit further northeast. Both are fly-in communities. Return air tickets are more expensive then flying to Toronto, starting at around $600.
The price might as well be $5,000, though. Both God’s Lake and Manto Sipi are mired in poverty, with almost universal unemployment and high costs of living. The winters especially are long, bitter, and expensive.
Due to the legacies of residential schools and a draconian Indian Act, there are nearly never-ending needs for programming, housing and infrastructure.
God’s Lake just ended an 11-year water advisory, while Manto Sipi continues to live under one. Youth suicide, substance abuse, and violence is unfortunately too common.
In all of this, there are few reasons to stay to school and out of trouble. Leaders, elders, and parents organize youth programs and run ceremonies, but it’s hard to keep the attention of youth.
This is why "the trip" — as Peter, a chaperone from God’s Lake describes it — means so much.
"This has given our kids memories they won’t forget," he said, as his wife, Cora, and two daughters, Hailey and Lauren, watched the game decked out in Bombers hats and eating hot dogs and fries provided by the team.
After the game, the group will be taken to the locker room to meet the players.
"I want (quarterback) Matt Nichols to sign my hat," said Elsie, 11.
"I can’t wait to meet the players," added Arianna, 11.
The Bombers won the the game, topping the B.C. Lions, but frankly, it doesn’t really matter. The children of God’s Lake and Manto Sipi cheer regardless. The group appeared on the huge video board near the end of the second quarter; team mascots Buzz and Boomer visit to give everyone high-fives soon after.
God's Lake teen Kathy wants to be a nurse; Arlen wants to work in sports. Both want to work in their community.
"For all of these kids, this is their first time away from home," said Roxana, a chaperone from Manto Sipi. "We watch them grow up on this trip and they come home and tell their friends to go next year."
For the entire third quarter, Chad, an 11-year old from Manto Sipi, excitedly blew a horn and danced, hoping to get back on the big screen.
"These kids are Manitoba’s future," said Wade Miller, president and CEO of the Bombers. "A program like this is not a question of why, but how much more can we do for them.
"These kids will go home and tell others," Miller said with a smile, "and then maybe they will become Bomber fans, too."
The fans surrounding the group in the stands seem to like the program, too. A sister and brother, Belloty and Balex, who regularly come to CFL games, said they are "impressed."
"The best thing about seeing these kids is it reminds all of us that our community is much more then Winnipeg," Balex said.
Yes, #ForTheW is for God’s Lake and Manto Sipi.
Along with hope, too.
Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.