On Tuesdays and Thursdays each week, Michael Thompson becomes the favorite sight of a few dozen students from Cornwall Collegiate and Vocational School.
The former professional lacrosse player helped launch an after-school program at a high school in Cornwall, Ontario, where students play and learn about lacrosse to earn school credits.
“In recent years with COVID, many kids have lost credits at home … because they couldn’t finish some of their jobs,” said Thompson, who works as a cultural advisor at the school’s Native Resource Center.
While credits have taken some students to the school gym or field to practice passing, re-stringing sticks and burning off some energy, that’s not why many are coming back.
“For us, it’s more of a drug than a game,” said Ronwaiewate Lazore, a grade 12 student who has been part of the program since it began in December.
“Obviously I never thought about the loan in this whole thing.”
part of the religion
In addition to playing the game, students learn about its history as a sport and its cultural significance to many indigenous peoples.
Born in the Mohawk community of Akwesasne near Cornwall, Thompson grew up playing lacrosse but was raised Catholic.
He said that’s partly why he didn’t learn the spiritual aspect of the game until he was an adult.
“In a traditional Haudenosaunee longhouse, lacrosse is actually part of the religion,” he said. Longhouses can refer to both the traditional Mohawk style of housing and a traditional governing body.
“Every spring and fall we actually have a game to refresh our medicines.”
Lazore, who is from Akwesasne and grew up watching lacrosse, said the program helped him reconnect with the sport and its higher meaning and credits it with motivating him to attend classes.
“It’s something to distract you and help you through what you’re going through,” he said.
Lazore also said he has started playing outside of school, walking more than two miles to the nearest lacrosse box most days to play.
The program was designed with Indigenous students in mind but is open to all students.
Letizia Gaibotti, a 10th-grade exchange student from Italy, said she joined the program to make new friends.
“I didn’t even know what lacrosse was,” she said.
Gaibotti said she enjoys learning about history and cultural practices from her classmates while playing the game.
“They are happy to share this knowledge they have with others [people from] other countries and I look forward to hearing what they have to say,” she said.
“I’m happy [the other students] were open to me and let me play.”
Teacher Jennifer Suggars, who helps oversee the program, said she learned about students in other ways and reached out to those who are struggling in the classroom.
“We have a huge population of at-risk kids, so there’s really more kids coming into the building with this program,” Suggars said, adding that some students come to lacrosse but skip classes.
“The more comfortable they feel at school, the more they feel like this is their home, and then we can use that as an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, you know, how are you doing in your science class ?’”
Thompson said lacrosse — a sport traditionally used by Indigenous peoples to resolve conflicts — was also a “ticket” to keep some students out of trouble.