When Céline Rathé, Geneviève Baron and Nicole Lavoie decided to offer a self-defence program to women, they expected to make the rounds of the schools and youth centres in their region. However, the three members of the Club Judokas Jonquière quickly realized that their idea had much wider appeal, particularly in the neighbouring Innu community of Mashteuiatsh, which is located on the western shore of Lac Saint-Jean in Quebec.
It makes for a beautiful, continuing story.
No more fear
Céline Rathé began practising judo at the age of 30, and she has been a member of the Club Judokas Jonquière for 35 years. The second dan black belt, who is now retired, had been considering launching a project to help women feel safe for quite some time. The catalyst was an unpleasant personal experience.
“I was followed (in the street) and it scared me. I told myself there was no way I was going to let that continue,” she said.
The first cohort of students was just about to begin training when the pandemic hit. Although the project was put on hold, it remained very much alive. And when Rathé saw that Judo Canada was offering online training classes to keep the judo community active during the lockdown, she contacted the national federation with her idea, and it was accepted in October 2021.
Nicole Lavoie and Geneviève Baron soon joined her. Since then, the ten-hour course has been delivered to 57 women between the ages of 15 and 72, divided into nine groups, some of which were comprised of several mother-daughter duos.
Baron has fond memories of her own self-defence course, which was given by Daniela Krukower. She believes it inspired her to become a trainer herself.
“She was so passionate about it, and in showing us the techniques so well, she transmitted her passion to us. Really!”
It was the presence of an Innu participant in one of the workshops that led to the course being offered in Mashteuiatsh. The participant was already a martial arts expert, but not in judo. She was a black belt in Taekwondo! Given her background, she was proficient in punching and kicking, but she wished to improve her defensive infighting techniques.
She found the self-defence course so useful that she hoped it would become available to her fellow citizens who, unlike her, were not athletes. Word spread quickly throughout the community, and the three trainers soon found themselves on-site.
At the beginning of the workshops, Rathé was shocked to hear numerous personal stories from women who had been abused or felt unsafe.
“They shared their experiences with me. It was very touching. Although I had been scared when I was followed, it was nothing compared to what these women have gone through,” she explained. “I really felt like I was making a difference. Those women were truly happy to learn to defend themselves. You never think it could happen to someone that close to you.”
Rathé was so shaken by what she had heard that she began to wonder whether she was truly in a position to help. However, her doubts were quickly dispelled when a member of the group told her she had gone for a walk near her home, something she had become afraid to do.
“I did what you told me to. I kept my head high, I breathed, and I walked. I can’t believe I’m going to start going for walks in my neighbourhood again!” said the participant.
That was when Rathé realized she was not just imparting grip and hold techniques.
“The tools we give them also help build their self-confidence. […] It’s liberating for them to feel like their bodies belong to them and that they can defend themselves.”
Baron also noticed the empowering aspects of the self-defence course.
“I remember one student who was very shy and who didn’t want to do the exercises with the others. She was really fearful, but by the end of the course, she was doing everything, and she was much more open. It’s hard to explain just how rewarding and satisfying that was!” she explained enthusiastically.
Some of the women work as orderlies or bank clerks and have been exposed to violence at work.
It’s a reality Rathé understands well.
“I used to work in a field where this type of training would have come in very handy. I was a tax auditor,” she said, laughing. “It was not uncommon for people to punch the table or swear at me!”
Next year, the young members of the Club Judokas Jonquière may see a little less of their teacher Céline, as the demand for self-defence training is on the rise.
“The demand is there. The need seems to be really great.”
The organizers are looking forward to taking part two of the Judo Canada training, so that they may in turn pass on their knowledge. The students in the second cohort are also getting antsy!
“Message to Judo Canada: We’re ready!” concluded Baron with a chuckle.