SURREY — He must always be there in support, selfless but at the same time both physically and mentally tough.
And above all, as the main link between two distinct groups, he must be a communicator, the one who in the end, brings everyone closer together.
Those are the characteristics which best define the position of rugby’s No. 8 man.
Yet in a fitting case of DNA imitating sport, they also happen to be the same characteristics in the young man Walter van Halst saw commanding the stage late last month during a series of packed assemblies at Surrey’s Lord Tweedsmuir Secondary School.
“I was sitting in the top row, watching with rapt attention,” said Van Halst, the school’s senior boys rugby coach and a 20-plus year social studies teacher. “My eyes were misty.”
That’s because he was watching those same qualities come to the fore in his own No. 8, a senior named Mackenzie (Mack) Allinson, who was speaking to a crowd of about 700 on the occasion of the school’s first-ever Day of Reconciliation, an event created to raise awareness and understanding in a new generation of Canadians around the issue of residential schools and the generational pain and damage they have caused for our nation’s First Peoples.
“It was so moving,” continued Van Halst of Allinson’s talk, one he gave to three different assemblies and over 2,000 people that day as part of a program he led with a co-emcee with fellow senior Sam McKinney.
Students, teachers, local native elders and school administrators were among those present
“I think as a country, we can be proud of so many things,” continued van Halst. “But there are things we’re not so proud of like this, and the internment (of Japanese-Canadians during WWII). And so there was Mack, really speaking to something.
“He’s not a JFK rock star,” added van Halst, “but he has the presence of someone who is confident and so mature. He is progressive without being judgemental. He’s just a kid, but he’s not like a kid. It’s a maturity level of someone who is 17 going on 35.”
TAKING HISTORY TO HEART
When Mack Allinson first learned of the injustices suffered by young First Nations students in the residential school system, which existed in Canada for about a century beginning in the 1880s, he was suddenly a No. 8 off the rugby pitch.
Despite having no First Peoples ancestry, he decided in 10th grade to pursue his high school English classes in the newly-created English First Peoples curriculum being offered at Lord Tweedsmuir.
It led him to read a book — The Inconvenient Indian — which truly opened his eyes to a dark chapter in Canadian history.
“It talked all about residential schools, places where the children of First Peoples families were taken out of their villages into put into places to assimilate them into (Euro-Canadian) culture,” he explains of the schools, the last of which closed in 1996.
“Some of the kids were treated terribly. They were tested on and beaten, and through all of that there is a lot of hurt and so much anger,” continues Allinson of a final toll which can’t ever be fully calculated.
A loss of culture and identity, sexual abuse, PTSD, depression, anxiety, personality disorders and the deaths of at least 3,200 of the children due to overcrowding, malnutrition and disease.
The English 12 First Peoples curriculum, one developed by First Nations educators and the B.C. Ministry of Education, and one which carries the post-secondary equivalency of English 12, is a direct result of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which over a six-year span, interviewed many of those who attended residential schools.
As a result of the commission, 94 calls to action were made, including 14 which pertained specifically to education.
“These courses are one of the stepping-stones to reconciliation,” says Tweedsmuir’s Penny Turpin, who has taught Allinson in English First Peoples for three straight years and who herself has a deep-and-storied history in the sport of rugby.
“Reconciliation isn’t just the B.C. Ministry of Education infusing aboriginal content into the curriculum, and it isn’t just the 94 calls to action from the commission,” she adds.
“It’s the new Canada, and when I see people like Mack, I can see that new Canada. And it’s a good one.”
REPPIN’ FOR REAL
The 2017 senior boys varsity rugby season at Lord Tweedsmuir has had its share of early struggles.
Yet it’s captain and No. 8 remains optimistic.
“This year we’ve only got seven Grade 12 players but things are starting to work,” says Allinson. “The boys are starting to get it, starting to understand the chemistry that we need to be a successful team.”
Allinson has always been something of a natural communicator in anything he’s attempted and it’s clear to see his skills as a No. 8 have a tangible translation in his style inclusive leadership, both on the pitch and the gridiron.
This past season, as a senior on the Panthers’ football team, he starred as both a linebacker and fullback, and in his spare time, found a way to join the coaching staff of an elementary school-aged team in the Cloverdale Minor Football Association.
“I thought it was cool to help them learn because I remember being in that same spot,” says Allinson. “Back then I wasn’t a very good football player. I didn’t know how to hit and how to tackle. But back when I was in Grade 7, (B.C. Lions’ fullback) Rolly Lumbala was one of our coaches and I thought maybe one day, I could be one of those kinds of guys in coaching young kids. That’s what I was going for.”
His began playing rugby in eighth grade at Lord Tweedsmuir because he imagined it was a lot like football. Coming off the camaraderie built during a Grade 11 tour of the United Kingdom, it may have become his favourite sport and one is aiming to play at the next level.
“I’m not sure, but don’t tell the football coaches that,” he laughs.
The one thing he is certain of?
Next season, he will head off to Nanaimo’s Vancouver Island University which offers a major in First Peoples studies.
He’ll combine that as part of an education degree, hopefully cracking the VIU Mariners’ rugby squad at the same time, all with an eye towards one day returning to his old high school as a teacher/coach, a job description he sees as mutually exclusive.
“I wish he was able to teach right now,” van Halst says. “I hope that when the time comes, that he applies in our district, and if that happens, I will beg my principal to hire him. He is the kind of guy who can build esteem and confidence one classroom at a time.
“What is the value of a young man like that? If he becomes a teacher he can become an advocate, he can give 30 years of service to our province.”
In a figuratively sense, Mack Allinson wears that No. 8 over his heart, and that’s fitting for all concerned.
“His leadership is a given,” says Turpin, herself was a pioneering force in the formation of girls high school rugby in this province.
“But his gift is that he is so tolerant and gets along with everybody,” she continues. “To me, he is something of a kindred spirit.
“Rugby players, and rugby as a sport, are special. In rugby there is no offence and no defence. We do it all together. And to me, that is a metaphor for reconciliation.”
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