How can sport unite cultures from across the globe?

Shawnigan rugby coach and Indigenous Community Engagement Coordinator Clay Panga had the honour to travel to New Zealand in summer 2023 with Thunder Rugby, a BC-based program aimed at introducing rugby to Aboriginal youth. It was a transformative experience for the 40 young people who made the trip, and for Mr. Panga himself.
In the summer of 2023, I embarked on a remarkable journey to New Zealand alongside 40 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis youth, where rugby served as our common ground. However, the true essence of our experience lay in the cultural exchange between the Māori people and the Indigenous communities of Canada. Our diverse group of young travellers came from various backgrounds, and for many, this was a life-changing adventure. Some had never ventured beyond their reserves, while others were on the cusp of starting their journeys towards higher education and independence. Guiding us on this profound journey was John Lyall, a member of the Kwakwaka'wakw First Nation, whose wisdom and guidance enriched our experience.
Our journey started with a symbolic gesture as we embarked in a canoe, signifying the shared traditions of Indigenous peoples. We were privileged to be invited to join the West Coast Tribal Canoe Journey for three days, experiencing first-hand the importance of water in both our cultures. Then we had a four-day pre-tour camp on the Shawnigan Lake School campus, which allowed us to bond and prepare for the adventure that lay ahead.
Once we arrived in New Zealand our itinerary was nothing short of exhilarating. We hit the ground running, which seemed to be the theme of the tour! In Auckland, we managed to squeeze in a hike, a traditional Kiwi meal (meat pies) and a visit to the headquarters of the Blues pro rugby team, and even attended a FIFA Women's World Cup semi-final. All of this was packed into our first day, setting the tone for a whirlwind journey filled with unique experiences.
Our adventure took us through an immersive six-night stay in a traditional Māori marae, a communal meeting house. This experience granted us insight into Māori traditions and protocols, enriching our understanding of their culture and forging deep connections. The incredible synergy between our two cultures was nothing short of eye-opening for our youth. For me personally, the journey held a unique significance. As someone of Māori descent who had left New Zealand in 2006 and made Canada my home, returning to my birthplace with fellow Canadians was an emotional and surreal experience.
Throughout our stay in New Zealand, I felt spiritually connected to both the Māori and Canadian Indigenous cultures. This sensation was both extraordinary and deeply moving. Our engagement in three rugby matches, even though we didn't secure any victories, was an opportunity of a lifetime. Playing rugby in New Zealand, where the sport is an integral part of the national identity, underscored the profound role rugby plays in the fabric of Kiwi life. It was a testament to the power of sport to bring people together, transcending borders and backgrounds.
In the end, this journey was about much more than just rugby. It was about cultural exchange, shared traditions, personal growth, and the forging of lasting connections. The memories and experiences from our time in New Zealand will forever hold a special place in our hearts, serving as a reminder of the power of unity and cultural understanding. This journey has left an indelible mark on all of us, and we are immensely grateful for the opportunity to embark on this transformative adventure.
Clay Panga has been Shawnigan's Indigenous Community Engagement Coordinator, Assistant House Director - Kaye's, rugby coach, and coordinator of Grassroots Service since 2022. Originally from New Zealand, Clay is of Māori descent. He has lived in Canada since 2006 and has represented Canada in rugby on the international stage.
We acknowledge with respect the Coast Salish Peoples on whose traditional lands and waterways we live, learn and play. We are grateful for the opportunity to share in this beautiful region, and we aspire to healthy and respectful relationships with those who have lived on and cared for these lands for millennia.