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The Ermineskin Eagles have a team chant to start their game against the Ryley Rebels in Hobbema, Alberta on March 16, 2012. (Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail/Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail)
The Ermineskin Eagles have a team chant to start their game against the Ryley Rebels in Hobbema, Alberta on March 16, 2012. (Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail/Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail)

JOSH WINGROVE

Alberta first nations hope basketball tournament helps repair reputation Add to ...

It was a bid the Alberta Schools' Athletic Association had never seen before: Could a provincial boys high school basketball championship be held in Hobbema, a cluster of four small first nations with a dubious reputation?

The home-court Ermineskin Eagles are, to be sure, no all-star team. They lose more than they win and have a roster of just nine. Their spotless, matching blue Nike sneakers were donated so that all would have appropriate shoes. One player is deaf, none are exceptionally tall, several are playing organized basketball for the first time this year, and they didn't win their zone and earn a spot in the tournament.

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But they're building something.

Hobbema is a collection of four reserves – Samson, Louis Bull, Montana and Ermineskin – long plagued by low graduation rates and associated with unemployment, gangs and crime sprees. At Ermineskin Junior Senior High School, which has 280 students in Grades 7 to 12, the Eagles are a team like no other, whether they win or not. They’re the face of a school trying to build no less than a culture of education, in part, through sports.

“We're up against it. It's quite the mountain to climb,” coach Mike Sonnenberg says.

The first and biggest hurdle has been attendance, which the principal says hovers around 75 per cent at the school. “I sit there and tell them – you need to show up to every practice and every game. … I strongly believe if you want to build a school culture and a strong school community, what better place to start than sports? That's where you're building your leaders,” Mr. Sonnenberg says.

The school has slowly built a basketball program, and the provincial athletics association decided it was time. So, the Eagles are playing host to the three-day championship tournament – it started on Thursday – which automatically gave them a spot. It's the first time the tournament has been held on a first nation.

Make no mistake, the Eagles are underdogs – they lost their first game 49-14 – but it presents a chance for locals to change the narrative of their community, where the failures of some so often wash over them all.

“It's always negative stuff. Drugs, gangs, all that stuff – stuff that makes everyone else look bad,” says Zachariah Whitebear, 17, the Eagles’ co-captain, centre and one of the young leaders his coach talks about. A gregarious Grade 11 student who gave himself a tattoo of the word “strength” on the inside of his right wrist, Mr. Whitebear says the stigma about his community is far-reaching. “I say I'm from Hobbema, they say, ‘Oh, are you in a gang?’ ” he says. “I say, 'No, what's wrong with you?’ ”

When the school applied to hold this week's 1A boys tournament, there were concerns in other cities. A series of high-profile crimes, including the killing of a five-year-old boy last year in Samson, have kept Hobbema in the headlines. Parents at other schools were worried they'd be sending their kids into a gang war – an issue people tiptoe around for fear of furthering the concerns.

“I always have to be careful,” begins Daryn Galatiuk, an ASAA director who also coaches one of the teams in the tournament. “Obviously, there were concerns for safety. But we have found – as the ASAA and as a coach, because I wear two hats – it has been wonderful. Perception is one thing, reality is another. And I think it's great for kids from all across the province to see what Hobbema really is.”

The tournament began with a cultural demonstration and has had no complications. (“Knock on wood,” Mr. Sonnenberg says.) Before it began Thursday morning, many at the 11 other schools knew little about Hobbema.

“I knew where is was,” says Ryan Brennan, head coach of Calgary's Heritage Christian Academy boys team, who called the tournament an “awesome” experience. “The opening ceremony, with the drummers and dancers, our kids hadn't seen that except in textbooks.”

Ermineskin's school is 12 years old with two gyms – a point of pride for the small community. Principal Keith MacQuarrie, a former basketball coach, had for years sought a chance to show it off.

“There's nothing better than drawing in people all over the province,” Mr. MacQuarrie says. “It's really kind of changing perceptions. That's one of the things our sports teams and student athletes have been doing for a long time.”

The young Mr. Whitebear is foremost among that group. He's frustrated by the losses but has high hopes – namely, more wins – for next season. His goal is to go to an art college after graduation. Sitting at a lunch table between games, he beams with pride about the tournament.

“It gives people another chance to see Ermineskin – and Hobbema – in a different way, see all the positive stuff,” he says, letting out a sigh. “You know?”

Follow on Twitter: @josh_wingrove

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