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Shooting for success: Two young Metis women make their mark on the range

“A lot of people try archery and find it challenging, but some people try it just once and love it.”

Bailey Drinkwalter is the picture of concentration as she measures the precise amount of black­ powder she needs to fill the muzzleloader rifle she has brought for a shooting demonstration on a clear morning in March.

She inserts a wad of material and a round lead ball, seating the ball securely with a ramrod. She pulls the trigger and the shooting range at the Victoria Fish and Game Protective Association — just off the Malahat Drive — fills with smoke and the bellow of the traditional long gun.

It’s just a fun shoot today, but she is still checking out how she did on the target downrange. While she did not bring her modern .22 rifle today, the 18-year-old is proficient with it as well, having won two provincial shooting gold medals in 2019.

Drinkwalter started shooting when she was eight, after picking up a rifle at an open house at the Victoria Fish and Game Protective Association. Her interest has been nurtured by her grandmother Catherine Fryer, a black-powder fan who discovered the sport when she was in her 50s.

Megan McCool, who is also 18, steps up next to shoot. The report of a small bore rifle like a .22 doesn’t shake the partition walls of the shooting range like the muzzleloader, but it’s more efficient and accurate.

McCool, who was born in Campbell River, is six-time provincial champion with a small bore rifle and has won two Premier’s Awards for Indigenous Youth Excellence in Sport — a collaboration between the province and the Indigenous Sport, Physical Activity and Recreation Council.

She got her start when she was six years old after joining her father and uncle on their annual family hunting trip together. Her father became her first coach.

“I got into shooting through hunting with my family — mainly grouse or deer,” says McCool, the youngest board director of the Victoria Fish and Game Protective Association gun range. “They encouraged me to enter competitions and I found that I was good at it. I once shot 599 out of 600 points in a competition.”

When the pandemic hit, McCool, a Colwood resident who graduated as the Indigenous valedictorian for Royal Bay Secondary School last year, was preparing for the North American Indigenous Games, which she says is “like the Aboriginal Olympics.”

She has just been offered a full-time job working at the Pedder Bay Marina. She will continue to work on a coaching certification, in the hope of participating in provincial competitions when they start up again.

She was taught as a child the traditional way of fishing, and volunteers at least once a week — with her mother — at the Goldstream Hatchery.

Despite her proficiency with firearms, Drinkwalter has lately spent more time honing her skills with a bow and arrow. Since 2013, she has won several gold pins at local Junior Olympic Program competitions. She won gold nationally for the Archery Canada Indoor Mailmatch two years ago and is currently aiming for the Canada Winter Games in 2023 — the tryouts are in November.

“A lot of people try archery and find it challenging, but some people try it just once and love it,” said Drinkwalter, who was born and raised in Saanich. “It may sound funny, but I find shooting too slow.”

She thinks it has something to do with her Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder, which was only diagnosed when she was in Grade 10. With ADHD, she is always thinking about everything she must do, getting fixated on details and having difficulty focusing.

She found that archery has a calming effect on her. In the minute or two it takes for her to focus on a target and draw her bow, her breathing and heart rate slow, allowing her to focus.

The two teens stand out in the world of shooting sports because they are young, female and Métis in a world dominated by men.

“Sometimes we are the only girls at a competition,” says McCool. “Even at some provincial competitions, I have seen a maximum of four girls. We get to shoot with a lot of older men — many who are set in their ways.”

But it’s outside of the shooting community where they both receive the most negative, stereotypical responses when people discover they are involved in shooting shorts.

“Some people — some of them my teachers at school — come up with very inappropriate jokes,” said Drinkwalter. “There is a stigma attached to guns and people seem to be scared of things they don’t know. My worst injury around guns was a paper cut.”

Neither talk about guns with their friends.

The irony is that when they go to a gun shop to purchase equipment, the salespeople generally talk down to them because they assume that, because they are female, they don’t know anything about guns.

Drinkwalter says the public perception of archery is more positive than guns, something she attributes to positive role models in movies and pop culture. “I have been called Katniss — the heroine in The Hunger Games — about 20 billion times,” she said.

When she trains in the indoor range at Saanich Commonwealth Place, there are always a number of spectators watching her. Archery is seen as safer to do around people, with target practice possible in larger backyards.

The only place that both girls can practise their marksmanship with their rifles and pistols is at the gun range at the Victoria Fish and Game Protective Association. The range is located on the side of a hill, with access restricted to members of the association. Safety regulations preclude casual observers.

The safe storage of firearms is one financial hurdle for anybody interested in the sport, with gun safes a requirement of ownership. In fact, Drinkwalter says she has no guns in her house, since her mother worries about safety — especially since she has a younger sibling.

Practice is necessary for any sport and in the case of shooting sports, using ammunition is a given. Some attempt to defray the costs by reloading spent casings with fresh gunpowder, or buying new casings and assembling ammunition themselves.

“It can be an expensive sport,” said Drinkwalter, who works part-time in retail after graduating from Spectrum Community School in 2021.

Jesse Zeman, executive director of the B.C. Wildlife Federation, an advocacy group for hunters, anglers and recreational shooters, says safe shooting opportunities allow young people to develop life skills such as perseverance, focus, resilience, and independence, as well as a sense of community.

“Bailey and Megan’s stories exemplify the youth confidence and active community-minded conservation that BCWF clubs promote.”

Both teens credit the sport for improving their self-confidence and hope their stories serve as inspiration for other young women and Indigenous youth.

“I never had much self-confidence growing up,” says Drinkwalter. “It was nerve-wrecking at first, but I discovered in shooting something that I was very good at. It’s pretty cool. It almost makes me want to brag, because I am so proud of my accomplishments.”

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