VANCOUVER — Last month, Nathan Berrington-Dom stood on the other side of the world, flanked by his 25 fellow teammates from the Lord Byng Grey Ghosts senior boys rugby team.
They were ready to sing a song.
“Ho He Lo, He Lo Ho Oh Hey…”
Harmoniously hitting the notes of both their upper and lower registers, they delivered an a cappella performance which at once captured the spirit so deeply ingrained in the global brotherhood of their sport.
All of this happened on March 12 in the Waikato region of New Zealand’s North Island, on the sacred Māori sanctuary grounds of Matamata College.
Just the day before, the World Health Organization had officially declared a global pandemic brought on by the rapid spread of coronavirus, and right around the time that the touring Byng players had begun their rendition of the Coast Salish anthem as part of a traditional welcoming ceremony with the Matamata team, news was breaking on our own shores that the National Hockey League had announced an immediate suspension to its season.
In a sense, while isolated within the serene, rural setting of this New Zealand farming town, the Grey Ghosts sat in the eye of an impending storm… in a world far, far away from their West Point Grey neighbourhood.
“It looks a lot like Chilliwack there except the mountains aren’t as big,” Byng coach Scott McKeen later reported. “If they were, you’d swear you were in the Fraser Valley.”
By the next day, (March 13), however, it had become all too clear to the Byng coaching staff that the second half of its biennial Southern Hemisphere spring break tour, which was set to take the team through Australia over the coming week, was not going to happen.
Instead, the Grey Ghosts found themselves making plans for a hasty northern retreat back to YVR, thus Lord Byng’s first and second XV’s would face Matamata in early matches March 14, and then over the next two days would return home on a pair of direct flights from Auckland to Vancouver.
“The boys were gutted when we told them but they realized that things were getting crazy,” said fellow Grey Ghosts’ coach Ian MacPhee. “Half a tour is still better than no tour. When we got back, we all spent 14 days in self-isolation and all the boys were all OK, touch wood. But those were crazy days.”
And yet in reflection, it was a trip which would have fulfilled its purpose even if the Grey Ghosts had never even had the chance to take to the field of play.
“To go to the Māori sanctuary, to be welcomed onto their land, and then for us to be able to bring a piece of our land and heritage to them…” began Barrington-Dom of performing the Coast Salish anthem in heartfelt response to the Matamata players after their hosts had opened with their own gift of song to the Byng traveling party. “They are quite different… the Maori culture and the Coast Salish culture, but at the same time, there is still that similar indigenous feel and sound to the rituals. It was cool to see the differences, but also to see the similarities.”
Now, as social distancing and self-isolation become ingrained in our daily vocabulary, and as our sports world take its cues from the global community and hunkers down for a lengthy hibernation, we have time to pause and reflect on why the games we play really matter and to ask ourselves how sports can help make the world a better place post-COVID-19.
So today, we start out at the very grassroots of it all with the story of a high school rugby team from Vancouver whose daily habits within the sport have always been polished by more than just its physical actions on the field of play.
Thankfully, their gleam has come from an understanding of the importance of tradition, an innate respect for their opposition, and the knowledge that the strength of any team is tied to its own level of internal co-operation.
Put all of that in your backpack, and you’re ready to go anywhere with no regrets, including the other side of the world… just to sing a song.
FINDING THEIR VOICE
Lord Byng boys rugby is as deep-rooted in the traditions of its sport as any B.C. high school is in any sport you might care to name.
And in lock-step with that tradition has been a longstanding tie to the nation of New Zealand, a fact which lends even deeper significance to the present-day squad’s abbreviated 2020 South Pacific tour.
In 1925, during an All-Blacks tour through Vancouver, the New Zealand Rugby Football Union donated a trophy called the New Zealand Shield to the Vancouver Rugby Union.
Over the generations, it has come to stand for emblematic schoolboy rugby supremacy within various high school athletic associations, from the Vancouver and District, to the Lower Mainland, and now the newly-formed Sea-to-Sky.
Yet above all, its charm lies in its genesis: As a gift from one of the greatest rugby nations on the planet.
The Shield was only eight years old when Lord Byng first hoisted it back in 1933, and you could say that despite the passing of time, the school’s ties to Kiwi rugby have only grown stronger.
The Grey Ghosts, in fact, over a stretch of their recent history, have developed a standing arrangement to tour the same two schools in New Zealand (Auckland’s Kristin School, and Matamata College), as well as a pair in the Australian state of Queensland (St. John’s College in Nambour, and Somerset College in Mudgeeraba) every other year.
And over the course of all that touring, Byng’s coaching triumvirate of Mike Mallette, MacPhee and McKeen have become more and more ingrained in the ritual practices of pioneering rugby culture.
“I remember when we went to Matamata back in 2016, they had a big, elaborate ceremony for us,” says MacPhee of the traditional Māori practice known as a powhiri, held on a sacred ground known as a marae. “The team sang a beautiful song to us, and then they looked at us like ‘OK, what is your song?’”
Adds McKeen: “It was almost embarrassing that they had done all of this work to do a welcoming that was a part of their culture.”
The Byng players, with no rehearsal whatsoever, managed to get through a sloppy version of O Canada, but the lesson had been learned.
“Ian looked at me, and I looked over at him and we both said ‘We can do this better, right?’” remembers McKeen. “And that is how we got started.”
The answer to McKeen was simple, and it played right to one of the great passions of his life.
“When I was doing my grad work at UBC (1995-96), the area of my research was indigenous history, First Nations history,” says McKeen, 56, a Nova Scotia native who came west to play rugby at UBC under the legendary Spence McTavish and for one season was a blue-and-gold teammate with Mallette.
“My thesis work was how to use traditional story-telling as an historical source,” added McKeen, who beginning in the mid-1990s also did four years of litigation research as an historical researcher for the Department of Indian affairs’ litigation management branch where he worked on files relating to such topics as residential schools and water rights.
McKeen, who has worked at Lord Byng for the past 20 years, including a decade spent in its alternate school with a program called Byng Satellite, currently is a teacher of Social Studies, and as well a First Peoples English class, one which follows the regular curriculum but is taught through the works of an exclusive cache of indigenous writers like Thomas King, Richard Wagamese, Eden Robinson and poet Rita Joe.
“Since I’ve done my research work, people have asked ‘Who is this (non-indigenous) guy doing this work?” says McKeen. “It’s a fair question to ask. Why are you doing this and what is your motivation? I hope (my history) gives people a sense of where it all came from.”
So as the team began preparations to select the most fitting touring anthem, McKeen approached the exercise with the respect he knew it deserved, and thus sought counsel of a person whose opinion he held in the highest regard.
“When we started to get ready for the 2018 tour, I contacted Brad Baker,” McKeen said of the former longtime co-head coach of the senior girls rugby dynasty at North Vancouver’s Carson Graham Secondary.
“I’d spent a year in 1988 living on the North Shore and playing rugby for the Capilanos and that’s when I met Brad,” added McKeen of Baker, currently the principal for Indigenous Education in North Vancouver. “I asked him what song to do on tour during a powhiri, and he said ‘The Coast Salish anthem.’ I asked him if it was OK for us to do it, and he said yes, it’s in the public domain, but I still give you permission to use it. I felt that it was very important to get that permission from someone I hold in very high regard. With something like this there is a range of sacredness of what you can and can’t do, so I still wanted to ask someone who was well-connected on the North Shore. And if you didn’t ask, then why didn’t you ask?”
The fascinating twist here?
The Coast Salish anthem was written by the late Chief Dan George, a chief of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation, a Coast Salish band.
Brilliantly versatile, Chief Dan George was also a poet, author and musician, in addition to being well-known actor who started his career at the CBC in the 1960s and was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor in the 1970 movie Little Big Man starring Dustin Hoffman. He was also memorable opposite Clint Eastwood in the 1976 movie The Outlaw Josey Wales.
Yet for a team used to tackling anything that stood in its way on the rugby field, tackling the Coast Salish anthem proved much more challenging for the Byng players.
“It’s really a chant, it doesn’t have any words, just sounds,” said McKeen. “As willing as teenage boys are to be loud when you don’t want them to be, and some days you cannot get them to shut up, when it came their turn to sing, they would just disappear entirely.”
CHOIR: THE ULTIMATE TEAM SPORT
“I don’t know how athletic teams are run, but I lead my choir team like a team,” begins Lisa Lan-Ledingham. “So the first thing we need is support, and that means being face-to-face, connecting with each other. The most effective way to do that is by getting in a circle.”
And so in early December of 2019 there they were, the Grey Ghosts boys rugby team four months ahead of its spring break tour, gathered in said circle under the watchful eyes and ears of Lord Byng’s award-winning choir teacher, herself a 2002 Byng alumna.
The rugby team had performed the Coast Salish anthem for the first time during its 2018 stop at Matamata, and now, with the new tour gearing up, McKeen reflected on the many hardships the team encountered in trying to bring a collective focus to those initial rehearsals.
This time around, he and his fellow coaches made sure the process was more pro-active, thus the team was told they would perform the Coast Salish anthem live in front of the entire student body on Dec. 20 during the school’s annual Air Band show, a capper before classes let our for winter holiday break.
To that end, McKeen knew they needed help and that Lan-Ledingham’s expertise was going to be essential.
“What Lisa did was she came in, put them in a circle and said ‘Open your lungs,’” laughs McKeen. “She had them hit a high note, then a low note. She had those boys eating out of the palm of her hand in about a minute because she is so charismatic, so dynamic and such a brilliant teacher. There was no way for them not to do it.”
Lan-Ledingham, for her part, wasn’t afraid to admit she had some initial misgivings about the project.
“I thought they might treat it like a joke, but they were so super-respectful, that is the first thing I noticed,” she said. “I also noticed how willing they were to make it work. They fed off my energy. You can only do so much if they don’t give it back, but I kept giving them energy and they kept giving it back. Like a team, they were supporting each other, and eventually they started to let go of their insecurities. It was a really remarkable experience.”
Still, all you have to do is listen to the Coast Salish anthem one time to know it is about as far removed as possible from the traditional structure of today’s popular music.
“Because most of them were inexperienced singers, they needed something with a very strong melody,” said Lan-Ledingham. “But the anthem didn’t have that. The metre was not controlled. So I didn’t even get them to sing at first. It was more getting them to experience what a chest voice and what a head voice sound like, so we did a lot of vocalese to get them started.
Both Lan-Ledingham and the Byng players leaned heavily on the rendition performed on You Tube by Gabriel George, the grandson of Chief Dan George.
Finally, on Dec. 20, with Barrington-Dom dedicating the anthem to a full house at Byng to open the Air Band show, the Grey Ghosts gave a performance which seemed to touch everyone in the gymnasium.
“It was a huge acceptance, a huge response which was really powerful in terms of a school that has only about 15 kids who identify as aboriginal or indigenous in the student population,” said McKeen. “So for them to so wholly embrace that cultural aspect was really rewarding.”
The reception floored Barrington-Dom.
“I sat down and watched the rest of the show,” he said, “and I don’t think the crowd cheered louder than when we finished that song. They loved it and that was so meaningful.”
THE RECONCILIATION GENERATION
Since about as far back as we can remember, sports teams have held a prestigious place within the social structure of our high schools.
“But this was different,” McKeen explains of the impact Lord Byng’s boys rugby team had on its student body following its public debut of the anthem last December. “This was doing something new in terms of embracing new curricula. There has been a bit of pushback against indigenous education. There is a resistance and we’re kidding ourselves if we think there isn’t. So for a rugby team to take on the task, to embrace an aspect of indigenous culture and learning, and present it to the school is the beginning of the transformation we need.
“Someone will refer to this (age group) as the ‘Reconciliation Generation’. This generation is the group. The non-indigenous students… they are the ones who will be foremost in making reconciliation happen.”
Of course there is so much more to this story.
The other half of this performance tale, as we’ve told you, took place last month on the other side of the planet, and as McKeen reflects on its events, all set against the backdrop of global pandemic, the moment seems further heightened.
“The night after we arrived (at Matamata) we went to see Chiefs play Hurricanes at Waikato Stadium,” McKeen says of the entire Byng traveling party taking in a professional Super League match in the nearby city of Hamilton.
“There was a traditional dance group that did a pre-game ceremony, and our kids are there, watching and understanding how important and embedded Māori culture is in rugby in New Zealand. So to also be able to participate in something like that in a meaningful way ourselves by bringing an aspect of our own indigenous culture to that environment…”
McKeen takes a lengthy pause before he continues.
“That is what connects rugby to culture,” he says. “It’s not just the game, and that has always been the thing about rugby.. it’s that it’s not just a game. There’s rugby culture and there’s a rugby way of doing things, and it’s about sticking together and holding up for each other, and holding each other accountable as well.
“Rugby is for all shapes and sizes, all ethnicities, all genders, all orientations. Rugby is the foremost sport in terms of embracing diversity. It’s inclusive and that is part of the rugby culture, so coming back to performing that song, in that environment… that is just a real embracing, connecting recognition of the rugby spirit. It’s what the game is all about.”
And so while we miss our daily fix of sports through these strange and scary times, we need not mourn their absence.
The Lord Byng Grey Ghosts had their beloved tour and subsequent season cut short by the global pandemic, yet perhaps decades down the road, they will look back on the totality of their high school lives together, including this most strange final chapter, with a deeply profound sense of importance.
And they may joke that in many ways, they flew to the other side of the world to sing a song in perfect harmony, then flew all the way back home.
Yet even though that song had no words, its sounds tell a most important story for our times.
“Ho He Lo, He Lo Ho Oh Hey…”
Members of the 2020 Lord Byng Grey Ghosts senior boys rugby team: Dane Beiks, Nate Berrington-Dom, Toryn Brady, Kyle Chapman, Sam Cochrane, Owen Disher, Dimitri Garyfallos, Lenny Gulmanelli, Grayden Hunter, Noah Karasz, Niko Kilindris, Ethan Kinsman, Thomas Lee, Cole Lewis, Jack Luft, Finley MacDonald, Matt MacLean, Sam Quattrochhi, Chris Schmidt, Isaac Schneider, Xavier St. Jacques, Micah Stanley, Thomas Swindale, Ross Thompson, Atila Vaikli Azar, Nick Watchorn, Quinton Watt, Holden Weisner.
(Varsity Letters sends a huge thank you to the Lord Byng Student Council for their footage of Air Bands 2020. As well, our thanks go out to Gabriel Lynn for his video and graphics expertise, and to Wilson Wong for his photography. And lastly, thanks to Ian MacPhee for his enduring passion for high school sports)
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