The thump-thump-thump of bouncing basketballs reverberates in the George Brown Recreation Centre. The hardwood here, in the village of Skidegate on Haida Gwaii off the jagged northwestern coast of British Columbia, is all old-growth forest: hemlock and spruce and Western red cedar. The red-and-white emblem of the Haida Nation, an eagle and a raven, marks centre court.
It’s Wednesday night and the teenage boys who comprise the Queen Charlotte Saints, the local high-school basketball team, practise a typical routine of drills, running and scrimmages. Assistant coach Dave Wahl, dressed all in black – touque, shirt, shorts, long johns, shoes – is a livewire of enthusiasm and has the boys sprinting the length of the court and back, several times over. It is preparation for what is coming next week: the provincial basketball championships for large high schools that will see the isolated, small-school Saints challenge the toughest competition around.
“If you don’t sprint your asses back every time, they’re going to punch it down your throat,” Mr. Wahl says. “Sprinting your asses back is the key to success. Go.” The boys run.
These are the penultimate moments of an extraordinary winter. Skidegate and neighbouring Queen Charlotte are home to about 1,600 people and there are barely two dozen Grade 11 and 12 boys at Queen Charlotte Secondary – attended by a total of 142 students – to populate the senior basketball team’s roster. But among the small troupe are a couple of the best players in the entire province – 17-year-olds Nate Vogstad, in Grade 12, and Jesse Barnes, in Grade 11.
And so the Saints have stormed their way to the highest echelon of provincial basketball, led by strong coaches and going 14-2 in tournaments and exhibition games as they travelled several thousands of kilometres and spent tens of thousands of dollars to get to games. The Saints would normally play in and likely dominate the lowest of four tiers, divided by size of school. Instead, they will measure themselves at the top, the 4A tier. Queen Charlotte Secondary is possibly the smallest school ever to play at this level.
On Wednesday, the four-day provincial championships for large schools begin at the Langley Events Centre in the Fraser Valley. The first game of the 16-team tournament, at 8:30 a.m., pits the No. 13-ranked Saints against No. 4 Walnut Grove Secondary. Walnut Grove in the Township of Langley is the defending provincial champion and has about 1,800 students, greater than the population of the entire villages of Skidegate and Queen Charlotte combined.
“We’re pretty damn good,” says Desi Collinson, the 28-year-old coach of the Saints. “I don’t think there’s many high-school teams that can keep up.”
The challenge at the provincials remains significant, and victory is far from assured. But success for this team is counted in more than wins and losses. It is rooted in the rugged land of these islands, sometimes severe and often beautiful, and flourishes in the spirit of the people, in the bright faces of teenage boys on the cusp of manhood.
Mr. Collinson, his long black hair down to near his waist and tied in a ponytail, is himself a former high-school star, and weaves the narrative of history and the islands into the days, weeks and months of training and practice. He runs the boys on the rocky crescent beach in Skidegate – “breathing in the air, you become alive,” says Mr. Collinson – and up the three-kilometre path through thick mossy forest to Spirit Lake.
In summer, he has the team out on the water in a traditional Haida canoe. Through the many dark nights of winter, the boys practise and, in lieu of any nearby high-school team to challenge, their games are against local men. This season, there have been only three excursions off island to face other squads their age.
“Basketball teaches you discipline,” Mr. Collinson says. “How you’re supposed to carry yourself. The strong history that we have, the storytelling, and how you should have a sense of pride. But just because you inherit something doesn’t mean you have an automatic right to it. You have to work. A sense of who you are is going to make you a better person, and a better basketball player.”
Haida history is one of scars and resilience and rebirth. Here on these islands on the edge of the world, there was for centuries a culture renowned for its art and feared for its warrior seafaring. In the 1860s, a smallpox epidemic struck, and it nearly decimated the Haida. Numerous villages were abandoned and survivors retreated to Skidegate and Old Massett, the south and north of Graham Island. As the Haida were dying, their culture was also attacked: a ban on the potlatch, central to community, politics and identity.