Youth in Waskaganish are enthusiastically taking to the sport of bouldering thanks to a new climbing wall installed as part of a two-month pilot project in the community. Eeyou Bouldering is the dream of Vincent Rodrigue and Jeanne de Metz, who both taught for two years at the local elementary school.
“We grew very attached to the youth, our students and the community at large,” Rodrigue explained. “We felt we could have a bigger impact with youth by not being their teachers but opening a place for them where they could hang out, feel safe and have something to keep them active.”
Seeing that their students wanted constructive ways to spend time and energy, the pair decided to share their passion for rock climbing by creating this ambitious facility in a former supermarket. Bouldering is a more accessible form of climbing as it doesn’t require a rope or harness.
“It’s easy to fall in love with bouldering because it’s so simple,” said de Metz. “You don’t need expensive equipment. If you have climbing shoes and a wall, you can climb for as long as you want.”
The 14-foot climbing wall features different lines of coloured footholds that are each “problems” for climbers to solve using balance, strength and strategic thinking. Socializing and developing problem-solving skills are an integral part of climbing culture. Every week the wall’s holds are reset with new problems, so regulars remain engaged with the sport.
“We like to create problems for every level of climbing,” de Metz told the Nation. “At the bottom of each problem is a small square that tells you how hard the problem is, so we have some for beginner 5-year-old kids and some that are so hard almost no one can climb.”
The free space quickly became a popular fixture in the community, with a daily after-school rush of kids running for their climbing shoes, which are available in all sizes. It’s open six days a week, from 4-7 pm for youth aged 8-11, and from 7-10 pm for youth aged 12 and up. On Sunday afternoons, everyone from toddlers to Elders are invited.
Eeyou Bouldering opened April 21. Interest steadily increased as families returned from Goose Break. With comfortable couches, art supplies, air hockey and foosball tables, board games, magazines and a kitchen corner, it offers something for everyone.
“The climbing wall is an excuse to attract the kids and keep them active,” shared Rodrigue. “They are happy to have something new to do, somewhere to go. The energy behind it is really a youth centre, a place they can come and climb if they wish or just hang out – we make the best smoothies in Waskaganish.”
Rodrigue admitted it took some convincing to gain community support for the little-known sport. Their experience as teachers helped earn trust from local sponsors, regional funding from the Cree Youth Development Fund and some federal funding through Indigenous Services Canada.
Coordinating the facility’s development during the pandemic was another logistical puzzle. It required them to dig deep into their climbing contacts, some of whom donated shoes and holds. Although walls are typically built by specialized teams, they needed a creative solution that could be self-assembled, portable and custom-fit for the available space.
“We found this company called Nomad Walls, young engineers who have a bouldering gym in Montreal,” explained de Metz. “Their goal is to bring climbing to remote places. They drew and created the wall and we brought it by ourselves to Waskaganish and built it with just a friend of ours.”
The project wraps up at the end of June, and the pair are focused on securing the building and necessary funding to relaunch for next winter, when indoor activities are most needed. They believe the initiative satisfies a community need for safe spaces where youth can spend their time in a positive way.
Parents appreciate he project, de Metz said. “One said her kid never goes out except to Eeyou Bouldering. The plan is to come back next winter from January until after Goose Break.”
High school student Stormie Diamond was hired to handle the after-school rush, registering children’s names and ensuring parents sign risk-acceptance waivers. Volunteers help with washing dishes and cleaning mats.
Involving local youth as much as possible is one way to ensure the project’s continuity. Although they dream of bringing Eeyou Bouldering to other Cree communities, the pair pointed to community pools that opened too quickly and then shut down as a cautionary tale to ensure operations grow gradually and organically.
“We want to make sure we do the first part of the project in Waskaganish well,” said de Metz. “If we have youth working here and can slowly step out of the project, maybe we could do this in another community.”
Another goal is to help youth discover some of the natural climbing opportunities that Eeyou Istchee has to offer. Although that would require specific safety training and additional equipment, Rodrigue and de Metz already have some destinations in mind.
“Here in Waskaganish, there is an amazing spot at km 28 with big boulders of quality rock,” suggested Rodrigue. “We also made a few trips to Nemaska where there are large cliffs. Plus, we’ve heard rumours of rock in Wemindji and there are amazing cliffs in Chibougamau, near Mistissini.”
by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter