Photo credit: Ruth Bonneville, Winnipeg Free Press

By D. Vienneau

Métis sprint kayaker James Lavallée never thought that his first time on the water would be so life-changing, or ultimately be the key to unlocking his  potential. Lavallée’s years of training led him to the podium at the 2017 Canada Summer Games, earning three medals for Team Manitoba, one of the highlights of his athletic career thus far. Lavallée proudly wore his Métis sash during his award presentation in his hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

Lavallée has been paddling for over a decade, and his accomplishments extend from the podium in sport to the podium on stage as a motivational speaker. He has represented Canada at two Junior World Championships and has won several medals at National Championships. In 2014, Lavallée was named the flag bearer at the World Junior Canoe/Kayak Championships, and in 2016, he joined Canada’s national canoe kayak team.

Following his success at the Canada Summer Games in 2017, Lavallée was awarded the prestigious Tom Longboat Award, presented to the top Indigenous male and female athletes of the year. 2019 also proved to be a memorable year for Lavallée as he received the Indspire Award for Métis youth and spoke at the 2019 Annual Vision Quest Conference and Trade Show. He also recently wrapped up a two-year term as an RBC Olympian, sharing his story of perseverance with thousands of youth across the province.

As a child, Lavallée struggled in school, finding it nearly impossible to keep up. He was eventually diagnosed with dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Recognizing that Lavallée needed an outlet outside of school, his parents signed him up for multiple sports, hoping that something might stick. “I tried every sport imaginable, from basketball to soccer to Ukranian dance…and I’m not Ukranian at all,” said Lavallée. “There were a few sparks, but nothing really fit.”

A few trips to the Manitoba Paddling Centre in Winnipeg changed everything. “I remember the first time I got on the water,” explained Lavallée. “All the stress, frustration and anger I felt at school just  lifted away. I had never felt that way. I started to feel more like myself.”

Feeling empowered, Lavallée began his paddling journey at age 11, training up to four times a week. “I wasn’t very good at it, but I really enjoyed it,” he explained. “I started making friends, and I was still back of the pack but I was doing better.” At 12, he participated in his very first race in Selkirk, Manitoba. “I was sitting on the line, and I remember thinking, ‘Why not me? Why can’t I win this [2k] race?’” He fell behind early on in the race, but just before the 1000m mark, he thought, “It’s now or never.” He sprinted past all of his competitors and won his very first race. That was the motivation Lavallée needed to really push himself. He then began to hold himself to a higher standard, pushing beyond his limits.

With all of the paddling, he improved dramatically in school, going from a frustrated kid in middle school to the honour roll by grade 12 and an A+ student in his first year at the University of Manitoba. This dramatic turn of events came from having an outlet and a place to relax that allowed Lavallée to start fresh every day.

Many of the things he learned in paddling transferred to his everyday life. “Kayaking gave me more confidence to be a better advocate for myself—to explain what I need and make it happen,” said Lavallée. “The reflective process of sport has helped me learn how to learn.”

Through paddling, Lavallée began to form his identity. Today, he is a very proud Métis man, but growing up, he didn’t truly understand what it meant to be Métis. In fact, he always felt like something was missing. It wasn’t until he took a Native Studies class in high school that he started askingmore questions. He learned his family history and started putting the pieces together. “Then it clicked why paddling was such a great find for me,” affirmed Lavallée. “I
didn’t know it when I started, but I was getting back to using the river, just in a different way than my ancestors did. That s very powerful.”

Inspired by the history of his ancestors and a mosaic of people in his life, he recognizes the importance of being a role model and leader for other Indigenous youth. “It’s an honour to have that role. This means I now have a platform to give back, and to me that is extremely important.” So important, in fact,
that Lavallée is considering transitioning out of high performance sport and focusing more on education and his plans to give back to his community and sport. As the current chair of the Indigenous advisory committee for Canoe Kayak Canada, one of his goals is to support Indigenous communities that
want to paddle, connecting people back to the water.

His most recent endeavour includes the official launch of Waterways Recreation, a non-profit group that partners with Indigenous communities and organizations to run paddling programs across Manitoba. The initiative, created by Lavallée and a group of dedicated friends, aims to create spaces for Indigenous Peoples, especially youth, to reconnect with the land while strengthening their identity and forging deeper connections within their community.

While paddling will always be a part of his life, Lavallée’s future plans include transitioning to marathon canoeing and earning his degree with the hopes of going into management and specializing in social enterprise for not-for-profits.

Lavallée is currently living in Montreal, Quebec, awaiting a response to his university transfer applications. He is looking forward to getting back out on the water at home in Winnipeg this summer.