Edward Pokiak has seen the Edmonton Eskimos play three times. This week, the Eskimos came to see him – at his school in Tuktoyaktuk, on the Arctic coast.
The Grade 7 student at Mangilaluk School delivered a verdict of "fun and exciting" as three players from his favourite team dropped in to visit earlier this week.
Pokiak was in the audience as the players talked about their sport, and about bullying.
Not only that, his leadership in sports and his community has earned Pokiak a trip to Edmonton to see a fourth Eskimos game, this time with a chance to meet the whole team and mascots. (Pokiak confessed hockey is his favourite sport – he travels with the Delta Knights to tournaments in Whitehorse – but said his friends are jealous of the CFL prize.)
Edmonton brought players to the Beaufort Delta in partnership with the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation. Ryan King, Edmonton long snapper for the past eight seasons, said excitement about their visit was palpable.
After a day meeting Tuktoyaktuk students alongside teammates Godfrey Onyeka and Andrew Jones, King said he saw "25 kids at 10 different houses throwing their footballs around" as they drove around the community.
"That's a pretty clear sign of the direct impact that we can have in communities," King said. "The sports community in these small towns is really lacking and they're not only lacking to have the sport itself but to have coaches, to have equipment, to have jerseys."
The plan, King said, is to take what they've learned back to Edmonton and find a creative way to help support children in these communities. "We in the rest of Canada need to be able to support the needs that people have up here," he said.
Players arrived not only with football stories and swag. They also shared a message about empowerment and anti-bullying. Through the work the team has done in schools, King said, players have realized bullies themselves often face difficult circumstances outside school.
"Some of these kids are the ones that are actually being bullied at home, or they're in a tough environment," he said. "They come to school and this is all they know, how to be bullied, so they go and bully."
CFL players from the Edmonton Eskimos speak to students in Inuvik. Photo: IRC
The message King shared with students in Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk was to meet a bully with compassion.
"If you ever come across a bully ... go up to them and, instead of giving them the reaction they want, give them the reaction of, 'Hey, I think you need a friend, I'm here for you and I'll listen to you. You can talk to me any time and I'll never judge you,'" said King.
"I can almost guarantee you that bully will not bully you the next day, and that bully just got an outlet to talk to someone."
School principal Ephraim Warren called that "a great message." The message for older students, Warren added, was about career choices, "dreaming big, and following your dreams, your goals."
On his first trip to the Beaufort Delta, King learned a lot about the region and its culture. "It's such a cool situation for me to be able to get right in the middle of this culture. Get onto the streets, get in the schools, meet the Elders," he said.
Seeing the entire community come together for the Eskimos' visit was an eye-opener, King said, and something these northern communities could teach the south. "I was shocked at how positive these kids were and how excited they were to hang out with each other and be a part of the community."
Touring the region as 'the Eskimos'
The name of the CFL team, a hot-button issue in previous years, did not come up during the visit according to Allan Watt, the team's vice-president of marketing and communications.
"We continue to listen," he said. "We were asked to come back and listen, to engage. And I think that's all part of the process in and around who we are, what we are, what we call ourselves, and how that resonates in Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk."
During the visit of club president Len Rhodes to Yellowknife in June 2018, the team came under fire for not meeting with the city's Inuit association, Yellowknifemiut Inuit Katujjiqatigiit. Suzie Napayok, the association's acting chair at the time, told Cabin Radio the team's name was "just kind-of derogatory in today's world."
In the past, the team has said a name change is a "huge undertaking" and not imminent.