Elite kayaker James Lavallée making waves on and off the water
University of Manitoba student James Lavallée is a proud Métis man and accomplished kayaker who takes every opportunity to share his heritage.
“In my family, our Métis heritage was hidden on both sides,” he says. “I just believe now is the time to make it shine, and to bring it out and learn more and bring all those traditions and all that knowledge back so that future generations have it.”
At the Canada Games held in Manitoba this past summer for example, Lavallée was draped in a ceinture fleche (Métis sash) during an award presentation after winning bronze in the 500-metre distance.
“I’m very proud to be Métis. It was important during the Canada Games to showcase that, because I was on my homeland and I wanted to represent the Métis Nation as an athlete at the Canada Games.”
Lavallée has received negative comments in the past when sharing his Métis roots, including being mocked by a fellow athlete that he was sharing the podium with.
“When people have negative comments, that’s just more of an incentive to tell my story.”
Lavallée’s life was transformed when he discovered kayaking at age 11. He grew up with dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which caused him immense amounts of stress.
“Everything was very frustrating for me, because I couldn’t read and was struggling, so school was very frustrating,” he says.
Lavallée tested out a number of sports as a form of stress release, eventually finding his niche on the water.
“From day one I knew I loved [kayaking], and I just kept progressing from there,” he says. “It was the first thing where I ever saw my hard work equating to positive results, so I just started from there and I haven’t stopped since.”
Lavallée’s momentum hasn’t stopped either. His accomplishments include being named the flag bearer at the 2014 World Junior Canoe/Kayak Championships for Canada, earning a gold at the championships in the 200-metre race the following year, and being named to Canoe Kayak Canada’s national team for the 2016-17 season. He’s also a CBC Future 40 nominee.
In October, Lavallée was also announced as the male recipient of the prestigious Tom Longboat Award, presented annually since 1951 to the Aboriginal male and female athletes of the year.
“It’s a great honour,” Lavallée said of the award. “Tom Longboat was a really successful athlete and to be handed an award with his name on it is pretty big. I could only dream to be at that level of athleticism and prestige. It’s inspiring me to get to that level.”
Lavallée – who is currently studying environmental science – only takes classes during the fall term because of his intense schedule, which sees him train eight times per week while also going to Florida in the winter to continue his development. He’s continuing to do his part to bring Indigenous students together on campus though, with the hope of starting up a paddling group next year.
“We’re right on the river, but we hardly ever talk about what the importance of that river is to Indigenous people around here,” he says.
“I think it’s important to have everyone together as a group so we can all be stronger as Indigenous people.”