Olympic Gold medalist and Right to Play ambassador Hayley Wickenheiser at First Nations School, Toronto, November 30.

By Barb Nahwegahbow

TORONTO – Canadian ice hockey player and Olympics Gold medalist Hayley Wickenheiser may have hung up her skates but she’s still a champion. Now, she’s championing diabetes prevention among Indigenous youth with the help of Right to Play and Sun Life Financial.

Wickenheiser was at First Nations School on November 30 with Sun Life Financial and Right to Play on November 30. Sun Life Financial announced a commitment of $450,000 to Right to Play’s Play for Prevention program to help combat the increase of type 2 diabetes among Indigenous young people. Wickenhesier who has worked with Right to Play since 2000 teamed up with Sun Life on the diabetes type 2 prevention initiative.

Right to Play is a global organization committed to improving the lives of children and youth affected by poverty, disease and conflict. They have pioneered a unique play-based approach to learning and development and their programs reach over one million children worldwide each week.

Their Promoting Life-Skills in Aboriginal Youth (PLAY) program partners with more than 85 Indigenous communities and urban organizations across Canada to co-develop play-based youth programs and focuses on improved health, education, resiliency, and employability.

The donation from Sun Life will help us impact the lives of so many kids, said Lori Smith, National Director of Right to Play Canada. We’ll be teaching young people what diabetes and diabetes prevention means, and 1,700 kids across the country will be reached through this program, she said.

Hayley Wickenheiser spoke to the students about her father’s experience with type 2 diabetes. “I watched him go from a really unhealthy lifestyle to almost eradicating it where he doesn’t have to worry about it much anymore because it is almost reversible too,” she told them.

“What Right to Play does is, they help kids get joy through playing through sport,” Wickenheiser said. “I grew up as a little girl playing hockey,” she said. “That wasn’t very popular because girls weren’t supposed to play hockey when I was a kid. But now, if you go into any rink, you’ll see a little girl walk into the rink with a bag and a hockey stick over her shoulder and that’s totally okay where it wasn’t twenty years ago.” While she was speaking, the students were thrilled to pass around one of Wickenheiser’s Olympic Gold medals.

Assistant Vice-President of Philanthropy for Sun Life, Paul Joliat said they were prompted to get involved in this initiative when they learned that type 2 diabetes is three to five times more likely to occur in the Indigenous population. “It’s natural for us to support this program to introduce Indigenous youth to become more active and help prevent diabetes in a big way.”

Lisa Ritchie, Senior Vice-President and Chief Marketing Officer for Sun Life said, “We’re very focused on awareness and prevention, to increase that awareness to the point of prevention. This was a natural because it involves youth and being active and Right to Play is perfect for that.” Ritchie said she hoped their contribution would springboard others to get involved.

In an interview following the event, in response to a question about how about food security may limit Indigenous youth from making healthy choices, Wickenheiser said, “I think as the greater community of Canada, we have to do a better job making sure that healthy food is more accessible to these communities…that’s a major problem.”

Wickenheiser continued, “I’ve always thought that in Canada, we have our own third world country within our own country, and what a shame for a country like Canada to have children that live in such extreme poverty and dire circumstances. No child in this country should have to live like that. I really think it’s all of us collectively that have to step up and educate people, and empower Indigenous communities to help themselves and take these people out of poverty because they deserve it.”