Residential school experience shaped Canadian skip Kevin Koe's father

Fred Koe was in an N.W.T. school, and later turned to curling to help keep his family close

Residential school experience shaped Canadian skip Kevin Koe's father
Kevin Koe inherited his father's love of curling. © Aaron Favila/Associated Press

By Devin Heroux, CBC Sports

Standing in the middle of the ice at the Yellowknife Curling Club on a frigid December night, Fred Koe starts reminiscing about how he got his start in the sport.

"I was in Aklavik, Northwest Territories, growing up with dog teams, hunting, trapping and fishing. It was my life," he begins. "We had a two-sheet rink with natural ice, lamps hanging off the ceiling and a small club room with a potbelly stove."

They would use that stove to melt snow from outside to pebble the curling ice. Fred was eight years old when he stepped on that ice for the first time.

"Two feet in the hack and I shoved it as hard as I could. And that's how Kevin started in Inuvik at six years old," he says about his son.

It's been an arduous journey for Fred Koe, who now finds himself in the stands in South Korea watching his son skip the Canadian men's team at the Olympics. It's a moment he couldn't have imagined for much of his life.

Standing on that curling ice in Yellowknife, Fred reveals something he says he has never spoken publicly about before. Not long after he started curling, he was ripped away from his family and placed in a residential school for 10 months.

"I was 11 years old and forced to move from Aklavik to Inuvik and spend a year in a residential school. It's pretty well documented that you lose your family. You're there for 10 months and come home for two months in the summer and try to reacquaint yourself with your family."

Fred still struggles to talk about the experience, and is not comfortable discussing details, but says it turned his life upside down. It was the end of his hunting and trapping life, and the beginning of years of hurt.

'Let him go and he'll be great'

Fred didn't want what happened to him, that feeling of being cut off from his family after his residential school experience, to happen with his kids. He wanted to be the best father he could be, and found a way to connect with his three children through the sport that gave him such joy when he was young.

"I always knew where my kids were because they were involved in sports and usually right here in the curling rink," he says.

In a lot of ways, the Koes have become Canada's curling family. Kevin, a two-time world champion who is now based in Calgary, is competing in his first Olympics. His brother and sister, Jamie and Kerry, are both elite curlers who have represented the Northwest Territories at the Brier and the Scotties Tournament of Hearts — Canada's national men's and women's championship tournaments — for years. They're all in South Korea watching Kevin go for Olympic gold.

VIDEO | Kevin Koe nails incredible shot vs. South Korea

Kevin's mom, Lynda, another lifelong curler, is also in the stands in Pyeongchang. She took her first-ever international flight to attend the Olympics. She was not about to miss this moment.

"There's going to be a lot of pressure," she says. "They need a medal, right? The teams are all very good. They just have to stay focused and curl well."

Fred and Lynda, who are now divorced, introduced their kids to the sport early on.

"I think at about eight or nine, Kevin really took it up. He always wanted to throw rocks," Fred says. "I always told him, before we throw rocks, we have to scrape and pebble the ice. We'd spend hours there."

The Koes have become known for their famous Boxing Day Bonspiel in Yellowknife. Upwards of 20 teams compete in the annual event. It has been going on for years. Lynda is the main organizer. Jamie, Kerry, Fred and Kevin have been playing in it forever. 

Fred recalls a time when Kevin was young and playing in the event. He'll never forget what he was told. 

"Two of the elders there said, 'That kid is going to be good. Let him go and he'll be great.'

"Now he's a world champion and hopefully an Olympic champion."

Indigenous inspiration

Fred says not many people know his kids are Indigenous — part of the Gwich'in nation. He bursts with pride when talking about it.

"Gwich'in people live on the land. Pick berries. It's a traditional and healthy lifestyle," he says. "When I was young there was no running water. You had to go out and get ice, wood and stay active. We had dog teams. At nights you were very busy doing all the chores. As kids, that was our job."

Fred points to that type of work ethic as a key to his son's success. He also says when someone from the North who is Indigenous is able to succeed on an international level, like Kevin has, it gives inspiration and hope for others. 

"Now we have a Gwich'in boy, my son, showing the world his talents. And it shows all children, no matter who they are or where they come from, they can be the best."

Kevin's team is undefeated at the Olympics so far. Fred is soaking up every second of it. 

VIDEO: Team Koe in juggernaut form through 4 games

"My heart is just this big. I can't put it into words," he says. "My family is here and they show it too.

"It's my claim to fame. I'm Kevin Koe's dad and I'm proud of it."