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‘It was freedom’: Victoria man features in new B.C. Indigenous Sport Gallery

He started playing when he was 5 years old

Soccer provided a path to freedom for Alex Nelson.

“When we were young, we were taught not to be ourselves. We were taught to go the other way,” said Nelson, of the Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw Tribal Council.

The BC Sports Hall of Fame unveiled a new Indigenous sports gallery on April 15. The gallery features over 139 square metres of permanent exhibit space that celebrates the rich history and many contributions to sport by Indigenous athletes, teams, coaches, builders, and volunteers.

One of those people is Nelson, who was first inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2018.

Being honoured in the gallery fills Nelson with a lot of pride in who he is. And he is flattered to be remembered alongside the other Indigenous athletes.

“Our old people always said, ‘You never brag about yourself. It’s others that do the bragging about you.’”

Nelson, who now resides in Victoria, is from Ukwanalis Village, set in the mountains three miles up the Kingcome River, northeast of Alert Bay. The village has around 300 to 400 people.

According to Nelson, his village is a combination of four different Nations, and the growth of soccer came out of nowhere. The sport came to Nelson’s village via Scottish loggers, who had occupied the territory and started creating more teams.

“We built a soccer field in Kingcome, which was unusual.”

The Indigenous teams formed were in Kingcome, Alert Bay, Cape Mudge and Powell River.

“Those are the four tribal groups that, in my mind, started off soccer in a great way.”

He started playing at five years old and practised shooting, dribbling, running after stray balls and kicking them back.

“So that became my little thrill.”

But Nelson was forced to leave his home in Kingcome at age seven and attend a residential school in Alert Bay. At the residential school, Nelson would start playing for the Dalton Braves, named after their former principal at Alert Bay.

In 1958, Nelson had his first experience playing in a tournament, and he considered that his ‘world cup’ for the rest of his life.

Toward the end of that tournament, Nelson recalled seeing the all-stars and the most valuable players on each team, one of whom was his uncle.

“He was 49 years old at the time. And I said, ‘I’m gonna be like my uncle. I’m gonna be number nine,’” Nelson said.

He would move to Victoria from Alert Bay, keeping his uncle’s number with him whenever he played.

“It became one of those role-model situations.”

Nelson discovered his passion for coaching, which helped him believe in himself and find solace in the beautiful game.

“I started to accept myself for who I was, and then I started to walk with pride.”

Soccer was a powerful influence on Nelson, and he credits the sport with helping him survive the residential schools. When he was at the school, the supervisors would often hand the kids a ball and tell them to go and play.

“I saw that it is not just a game. It was freedom.”

Nelson still believes in his football ability and plays for the Oak Bay alums.

“I still think I am the best player.”

He attended UVic, majoring in event management becoming heavily involved in the 1997 North American Indigenous Games hosted by Victoria.

Nelson approached his father as a young athlete, seeking advice on how to improve his game.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Don’t chew gum.’ That’s all he said. So eventually, I just started to accept that I must be playing, OK.”

Nelson now credits his seven-year-old great-grandson Marcus with keeping soccer’s inspiration alive.

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About the Author: Thomas Eley

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