A new self-defence program for Indigenous women and girls is cropping up in the Edmonton area due in large part to a former Cochrane man turned professional MMA fighter.
Nick Felber, a former student of Cochrane High, whose own young life has been beset by loss and tragedy, said his time spent working as a high-risk youth worker was one of the driving forces behind starting the program.
"I always wanted to be a youth worker, even before the army," said Felber, who spent almost two years enlisted in the Canadian Military after college, before finding a position working with at-risk youth in Edmonton.
"Working with a lot of Indigenous youth and teens [in that role], it opened up my eyes to that culture a lot more and made me want to do more for that community."
Although he eventually left his job as a youth worker, Felber continues to aid kids in another capacity — as a kickboxing coach at the Ludus Martial Arts Academy, another driving passion of his.
Having seen trauma firsthand as a youth worker, and being forced to cope with some of his own at an early age, the MMA fighter also wanted to design a safe, accessible space at the gym for Indigenous women and girls, specifically those who may be dealing with abuse or who are in need of an outlet.
Felber, and gym owner Justin Sander, are now trying to make that a reality by partnering up with Edmonton's Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society to pilot a self-defence program out of the martial arts gym, aimed at empowering Indigenous women and girls ages 15 and up.
Bent Arrow is a non-profit that serves to strengthen the culture of Indigenous people by enabling them with the tools to grow spiritually, emotionally, physically and mentally to embrace their Indigenous culture.
Youth program supervisors with the non-profit, Sharon Tuck and Brittany Tames said they were eager to partner up the gym when a former colleague of Felber's, who had ties to Bent Arrow, reached out to them.
They are calling the self-defence program Kotawe, which means "to catch fire" in Cree.
"Sharon and I both have the unique opportunity to work with Indigenous youth and high-risk youth, and we know this will be an amazing opportunity for them to take advantage of these classes," said Tames.
The program is still in an early pilot phase and has been tricky to expand during COVID-19, but the aim is to make all sessions free or of little cost to Indigenous women and girls. This is something Felber and the non-profit hope they can continue by creating awareness and finding sponsors to back it.
Of the sessions they have had thus far, 15 young girls with Bent Arrow have signed up, but just one has shown up for the class, which also included safe transport to the gym provided by Bent Arrow.
"Sometimes it's still difficult for a lot of these women and girls to even get to the gym," Felber added. "If the program were to get enough attention from companies that want to support it... we could start funding for buses or some kind of transportation to get more people there safely and reliably."
Tames said they plan to build more awareness for Kotawe by creating a promotional video to post to their social media platforms in the coming weeks and advertising it to the wider community of Indigenous women in the Edmonton area.
Kotawe also makes a point of weaving Indigenous culture and practices into the act of learning self-defence by inviting a Bent Arrow cultural connector to take part in the class.
"We start in ceremony," said Tames. "We start in a circle and our cultural connector starts us off with a smudging prayer, then she does a cultural teaching.
"Her cultural teaching last time was the medicine wheel and how the self-defence course can connect to all four aspects of the medicine wheel."
The program has become an offering and learning experience for both sides, she added.
"Coming from two different lenses, it was what we learned from each other, so it wasn't only [the gym] offering something — they took from that as well. Which is really what a true partnership is, there's a give and take."
If the program is able to grow and become successful, Felber said it would be great to be able to inspire other gyms to do something similar.
Or, he suggested, they could take the Kotawe program and drive to different locations to run off-site clinics.
"If there was an organization in Cochrane or Calgary, or wherever, if the funding's there — my coach [Justin] and I would love to do it," he said.