On Friday, Nov. 1, 2019, the YMCA of Eastern Ontario announced the winners of the 2019 Peace Medals for Kingston at a breakfast on the Four Points by Sheraton.
The award in the community category was presented to Katie and Steve Koopman for their work with the Rez Girls hockey team and founding of Good Ally Project. Abby Berube, a grade 12 student in the international baccalaureate program at Regiopolis-Notre Dame Catholic High School, was the winner in the first-ever youth category for her commitment to helping others.
Special guest speaker at the event was actor, singer and activist, Tom Jackson.
Katie and Steve Koopman fell in love with the story of the Rez Girls 64 Wolves hockey team when they first heard about them on CBC's The Doc Project in 2017 and knew they wanted to get involved.
The Rez Girls are a girls' hockey team from Eabametoong First Nation – also known as Fort Hope. The girls started their team on their own initiative and overcame many obstacles to do so – including the absence of equipment and lack of proper facilities for skill development. As Katie and Steve learned about the team and an inspiring donation of equipment to the girls from a student in Markham, they also heard about the overt racism that the girls faced at their first tournament in Thunder Bay.
“I was shocked hearing about the girls’ experiences of verbal and physical racism” Katie said. “To think that adults would intentionally and blatantly make such remarks about a group of children made me angry. We are very privileged as settlers, and Steve and I had been realizing that we have to reconcile our love of this country with its history and current behaviour.”
In addition to jobs in administration and policing, Katie and Steve are professional photographers. Inspired by Gord Downie’s call to “do something,” they offered their photography skills to document the team’s next tournament in Ottawa. The Koopmans also encouraged the Kingston community to fundraise for the team to attend a Senators’ hockey game. That first step led to a visit to Fort Hope, a week-long visit with the community and the beginnings of new relationships.
“We asked one of the coaches what the community needed and there was no hesitation at all. ‘Cement’ was her one-word answer,” Steve said. “A new cement floor for the arena so everyone could use the arena earlier in the year, allowing the girls’ team practice to begin in the fall like every other hockey team instead of in January, which is a big disadvantage.”
A lot has happened since then. Katie and Steve raised $90,000 for the floor with lots of help from donors including David Sharpe, a Queen’s Law alumni and businessman from Tyendinaga, MP Charlie Angus and the Mitch Marner Assist Fund. They’ve returned to Fort Hope with borrowed cameras to teach photography skills to grade nine students, there have been two events showcasing students’ photographs, the Rez Girls have come to Kingston for another tournament and the Koopmans hosted a Reconciliation Walk at the Little Cataraquai Conservation Area at the end of September.
As part of this journey, the Koopmans have created the Good Ally Project under the auspices of True North Aid, a non-indigenous non-profit charitable organization that offers humanitarian aid to Indigenous communities across Canada.
“We’ve developed good rapport with people in Fort Hope. We didn’t want to step in and step out,” Katie said. “People keep asking us, ‘What is next?’ So more projects are being planned.”
“It doesn’t matter where you get involved, it’s only important that you do. If you’re an athlete, coach someone; if you like to bake, host a bake sale to help a cause,” says Abigail Berube, a grade 12 student in the international baccalaureate program at Regiopolis-Notre Dame Catholic High School.
Abigail has certainly been recognized for taking her own advice, pitching in wherever she can. She is active in the Faith in Action group at her school, has raised money for victims of hurricanes, volunteers with the Ahead-Start program that helps grade nine students acclimatize to high school, has organized a healthy living program at a medical office, volunteers at a nursing home and travelled to Peru where she learned about another culture and helped to make bricks and build a wall for an extension of the community’s marketplace. These serve only as examples of her commitment to helping others.
Abby credits her mother with her commitment to being of service. “My mom has been a positive example for me in helping others and has sometimes encouraged me to go outside of my comfort zone. I’ve run with that and like to know that I’m helping people who are not as privileged as I am.”
Abby is truly an example of someone who builds peace in our community and is well deserving of Kingston YMCA’s first Peace Medal in the youth category.