How can wrestling help First Nations communities? 

The Canadian Wrestling Federation puts on a show when it visits Indigenous communities. But it also takes on pressing issues like substance abuse, bullying, and suicide
By Claude Sharma - Published on Aug 15, 2019
wrestlers in a ring
Big Bear wrestles to a win against Matthew Mountie to close out a CWF match at the community centre in Brunswick House First Nation. (Claude Sharma)

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BRUNSWICK HOUSE FIRST NATION — Matthew Mountie strides down the aisle in red spandex tights, a Canadian flag tied around his neck. “O Canada” plays over the loudspeaker, and spectators jeer.

Mountie climbs into the wrestling ring to meet his opponent: a 230-kilogram Cree man who goes by Big Bear. Mountie picks up a microphone and looks out at the largely Indigenous crowd. “You people are not real Canadians,” he says. “I am better than you.”

The real name of the “Real Canadian” isn’t Matthew Mountie — it’s Dylan Koros. And the outcome of the match isn’t in doubt: it’s a bit of scripted theatre being put on by the Canadian Wrestling Federation for an audience of about 60 people who’ve gathered at the community centre in Brunswick House First Nation, roughly 200 kilometres southwest of Timmins.  

The CWF, founded in Winnipeg in 1995 but now based in Niagara Falls, features a rotating cast of up to 15 performers that tour the country, partnering with communities to provide live entertainment. It’s not always Matthew Mountie taking on Big Bear: sometimes it’s owner Frank Ryckman (stage name Kryss Thorn ) vs. his son, or a tag-team match, or the ever-popular battle royal, which sees multiple grapplers in the ring at the same time trying to toss each other over the top rope.

According to Ryckman, nearly 90 per cent of its clients are First Nations. “Some of these kids can't get to the big wrestling shows, so I wanted to be that company that brought that to them,” he says.

Although the group performs only once or twice in each location, it’ll often stay for several days, offering wrestling bootcamps and educational workshops on issues such as drug and alcohol abuse and suicide prevention. Before each show, the wrestlers put on a special performance that demonstrates the effects of bullying and techniques to prevent it. Communities typically pay between $2,000 and $3,500 for the entire experience.

Gisele Frost, the health director for Brunswick House First Nation (who’ll be starting a term as councillor August 17), helped arrange the CWF visit. “I wanted to bring them in for anti-bullying,” she says. “You know there's bullying with adults too, right? It's not just kids. Bullying is with everybody.”

And the effort seems to be producing results. Dawson Neshawabin, 10, whose grandmother lives on the reserve, says he’s now more aware of his responsibility as a bystander. “If someone is getting bullied,” he says, “this has convinced me to step in and help them.”

One of Dawson’s favourite performers is Big Bear, played by Henry Wischee, a 33-year-old school teacher from the Cree Nation of Waskaganish, in Northern Quebec, who’s been wrestling for almost 15 years. “When CWF came to my reserve, they put on a show, and I was in the crowd, and I saw the body slams and all the moves that they did,” he says. “And I just fell in love with it.”

On this August night at the community centre, Big Bear has some ringside support: his friend Darris Jolly, “The Warrior,” a 23-year-old from Waskaganish who trained at Ryckman’s pro-wrestling school in Niagara Falls, is in attendance. And so is perhaps the group’s most popular performer, Ryckman’s son Jesse — better known to fans as “Jesse Bieber, wrestling’s greatest popstar.” The younger Ryckman, who began touring with his dad when he was 15, is hoping that his cross-country touring will lead to a career with a larger company, such as World Wrestling Entertainment.

For the most part, wrestlers know that the CWF itself can’t offer them a career. They’re paid on a sliding scale according to their experience and star power. And the work can be gruelling: wrestlers need to train for the performances, and they log thousands of travelling hours each year. Usually, they get to their appearances by van, but, occasionally, they tour remote communities that can be reached only by plane or ice road. In one six-week span in 2019, the CWF travelled 17,000 kilometres to put on 36 shows.

But for the younger Ryckman, who works as a general contractor and will be going to Niagara College this fall to study community and justice services, the grind is worth it. “This is just my passion,” he says. “It's just something I absolutely love.”

Before the night’s special event — the fight between Big Bear and Matthew Mountie — the announcer tells the audience that Big Bear hasn’t been medically cleared to compete. But Mountie goads Big Bear into accepting his challenge. After using a chokeslam, Big Bear pins Mountie’s shoulders to the mat for the victory. The crowd cheers.

The performance is meant to function as equal parts entertainment and education. “It's something to share and notify with the kids — the history of Canada — to share what's going on,” says Wischee. “We don’t want to mock it. We don’t want to tease it or put it down, or anything like that, but some of the stuff we come up with in our shows, we want to address these problems sometimes.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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