By Stuart Miller-Davis
St. Matthew High School head football coach Jean-Sorphia Guillaume has always strived to help his players make it to the next level, but that’s never been his main goal.
That pursuit is one much greater: supporting the dreams of his student-athletes, especially those who are Black or come from other groups considered minorities in Canada.
“I knew our Black little brothers were far behind for social economic reasons and for discrimination,” Guillaume recently told the Ottawa Sportspage in an interview. “(I’m) using the football platform to bring them up and to elevate them.”
Guillaume is a Haitian immigrant. He was born in the small village of Plaine-du-Nord. He eventually moved to Montreal, where he played football for the Université de Montréal Carabins. Quebec’s biggest city is where he got his start in coaching football before moving to Ottawa.
Once in the nation’s capital, he completed both his bachelor’s degree in sociology, social services and education, before finishing a master’s in social work, both of which he obtained from the University of Ottawa.
Stemming from around a decade of experience of social work, Guillaume turned to teaching, where he says he’s always tried to steer students towards a post-secondary education. It’s an approach – paired with football – that’s helped him elevate athletes to the university and collegiate level in Canada and the United States.
“When I take them, I don’t aim the next level. I aim to create a great academic student,” he said when asked about how he approaches athlete development.
“If you tackle the great students and make sure they’re great students, they will definitely become better football players. And, of course, (they) will have a better chance to be in a better position in the process of recruitment. Because when these coaches recruit, not only they check your stats, but they check your academic results.”
With Guillaume at the helm, the St. Matthew’s Tigers have been built into a perennial competitor within the local high school league, as well as a launching pad to post-secondary play. The City of Ottawa recently recognized Guillaume for his work with at-risk youth by awarding him the 2020 Brian Kilrea Award for excellence in coaching.
More recently, Guillaume was sought out by his local football team, the Orleans Minor Football Club, to run their under-18 (U18) team. He saw it as an opportunity to expand on his Tiger-taught principles.
“(Orleans) saw the success we had helping kids to play at the next level, and also the level of coaching, the team spirit (and) the brotherhood that was created. And you know, they wanted that at the club,” Guillaume said. “But as for me, the reason why I decided to jump on board, the main thing was, because I was going to be able to help more kids, as opposed to, if the kid was not at my school, I couldn’t really do much for them.”
In April, Guillaume’s U18 team announced its intention to fully rebrand from the Raftsmen to the Fighting Maroons, before the moniker was rejected by the National Capital Amateur Football Association (NCAFA). The proposed name was rooted in Canada’s Afro-Caribbean history – the name attributed to a Black militia company formed in Halifax.
“We have a formal policy if a team wants to change their name or their colours,” NCAFA president Gawain Harding told the Sportspage. “You have to come to the board, and it has to be put to a vote. There was a discussion, but at the end of the day it was indeed voted against.”
As a history teacher, Guillaume said he saw the name change as an effort to improve authenticity.
“I said, ‘Guys, isn’t it time that our Black kids play for a team that commemorates something positive in their own history?’ And they loved it, and many people didn’t know about it,” he said about the proposed change.
“The Maroons were the ones protecting the philosophy of freedom. When the world was colonizing, they were the ones against colonization. And on top of that, there was many Maroons who came to Nova Scotia.”
He said he sees the rejection of the name as a failure on the part of NCAFA.
“We’re not doing anything wrong,” he said. “We’re just using a name to commemorate a group of people that contributed immensely in humanity. And not only in humanity, but in our immediate heritage.”
Guillaume said his love of football and his reason for coaching is that it can be for anyone.
“There’s room for everyone: Big, small, skinny, tall, short. And everyone from different walks of life, they can come together and have one common goal,” he said. “And that reflects what we should have and what we should do in our community. When you include (everyone) you only get stronger.”