Youth softball tournament cancellations in several Cree communities this summer are prompting recreation officers and team representatives to rethink their approach to youth sports.
At least four communities nixed their planned tournaments this summer because of insufficient registrations – while four others didn’t even try to organize an event.
“It’s been like this for a couple of years. It’s not the first time,” remarked Roy Neacappo, Recreation Coordinator for the Cree Nation of Chisasibi, the only Cree community that succeeded in hosting a youth softball tournament this year (though even there it was scaled down).
“Parental involvement has gone down a bit since last year,” noted Charles Hester, Director of Culture, Sports and Leisure in Waskaganish and Vice President of the Eeyou Istchee Sports & Recreation Association (EISRA).
“For a lot of these parents, it’s not easy financially,” agreed Raymond Shanoush, Sports Development Coordinator at the Cree Nation of Eastmain.
Shanoush explained that many families are saving to participate in more popular winter sports like hockey or broomball, or prefer to enjoy summer activities such as fishing and hunting.
“There’s not enough weekends in the calendar,” he added. “A regional event will often kill a local event.”
Admittedly, said Hester, the EISRA demands a lot from families by expecting them to travel long distances for games several times a summer. “In Waskaganish, the nearest competition is six hours away,” he noted.
For Neacappo, families are losing interest for personal, not financial, reasons.
“It goes back to the parents. We have to get them involved and to shift the mentality,” said Neacappo. “One of the most important Cree values is parenting. We are a very family-oriented people.”
In the meantime, many communities have expensive, state-of-the-art baseball fields that are often sitting idle.
The field in Waskaganish, for instance, cost more than $600,000. “It’s been said that it’s one of the best ball fields in Quebec,” Hester reported.
According to the Nemaska band office, development of their field began three years ago, at a final cost of almost $1 million.
In Eastmain, two new ball fields cost over $500,000 to build over a two-year period as part of an ongoing sports and recreation project.
Despite these facilities, many say that kids in the communities lack the right kind of support to join – and stay in – softball leagues.
“I’m just afraid that we’re going to see kids say, ‘Yeah, I’m not going to bother,’” mused John Blackned, an assistant supervisor at the Nemaska sports complex who organized youth softball tournaments in the past.
It’s more common for communities to attend the more popular softball tournament in Val-d’Or, which takes place in June. Twenty-two youth teams participated across categories from ages 6 to 18 for both boys and girls.
“Val-d’Or is more prestigious, you feel that you’re crowned champion for the whole year,” observed Neacappo.
Some speculate that families prefer Val-d’Or’s tournament because of the city’s attractions. The nightlife, shopping and restaurants are incentives to make the long drive.
From Blackned’s experience in organizing youth softball, parents are the best motivators to inspire a kid to play.
“There’s a big difference in their faces,” noted Blackned. “Kids who see their parents in the stands are more energetic. I always enjoyed seeing my parents watching out there.”
Down the road, the EISRA plans to cut down on travel time and create more tournaments by developing North, West, East and South divisions – “to lessen the load on the parents a bit,” Hester said.
Although this year’s community tournaments failed to garner interest, organizers are encouraged by registration in the inaugural James Bay Minor Softball League Championships to be held in Eastmain September 13-15.
For more information on the upcoming tournament, visit EISRA.ca