It was a clear March night, 15 years ago, when Matt’s mom dropped him off at Pearson airport on his way out west. He was leaving Manitoulin Island, and M’Chigeeng First Nation, the Indigenous community where he was born and raised. Post - 9/11 armed policemen could be spotted all over the Toronto hub. However, nothing was comparable to the excitement that pervaded Matt Corbiere’s youthful persona at the time. He made it. He was leaving the island and its rural boredom for the big city and money from the Albertan oil rush.

“At the time I felt like the owner of the world. Heading west at 21 was an amazing opportunity for an Indigenous kid like me,” he said.

In a matter of months, Matt fully adjusted to the rig lifestyle. Cash flowed in and out of his pocket fast, and he found love and built his own family. But, the peak of his success marked the beginning of his decadence. Alcohol and depression proved to be the dark side of his dreams – soon, even his relationship started collapsing, turning his life into a golden cage ruled by his own trade. The wake-up call came in the form of his dad’s heart attack and the doctor telling Matt he was at risk. The frames of his unhealthy lifestyle and potentially lethal consequences fast forwarded in his mind. That’s when his fitness journey began.

“Unfortunately, my first stint at training did not last long. My family life spiraled. I gave up on myself and turned to alcohol again,” Matt recounted.

Eventually addiction took its toll, depriving Matt of his driver’s licence, reducing his chances to be hired as a journeyman crane operator. A seemingly forced return to his native Manitoulin Island was the only option available.

“It was like my whole identity was staked on being a crane operator who makes a lot of money – when I lost that I became nothing.”

At the bottom of the valley, cornered by depression, Matt’s days grew longer and longer. Among the darkest thoughts that crossed Matt’s mind, a ray of light broke through. At some point he remembered how strong and athletic he was in his early 20s. So, he clung to that idea to regain confidence, and focused on training again. As his strength increased, he felt his life was slowly realigning – competing became a natural progression of this hard work.

“I am indeed very comfortable in my own space, so challenging stronger guys terrified me,“ Matt noted. “I knew, however, that the moment I’d get out of my comfort zone, a further growth would happen.”

Strongman competitions became Matt’s ideal ground to keep forging his inner steel and inspire his community. M’Chigeeng’s older men, who could barely interact on social media, all came to know about the island’s strongest man - providing his endeavour with a true sense of purpose and honour.

“He is a very humble guy,” Kim Pahpeguish added with a smile on her face. “And a great coach too!”

Matt and Kim met online through a Facebook group called “Healthy Active Natives.” The platform’s main goal is to pair Indigenous individuals on a journey to better physical and mental health. A life and workout partner sharpened Matt’s focus on Strength Athletics – holding a lantern for somebody else became a genuine way to light up his own path as well.

“I truly believe that I’ve become better at lifting because of her,” Matt said. “When you teach another person, it helps you understand better,” Kim continued.

Hailing from Wikwemikong First Nation, the largest Indigenous community on Manitoulin, Kim left the island on a similar journey to Matt. However, violence as a result of intergenerational trauma within her family was always around the corner. Stereotypes often depict reserves as places rife with addiction, yet at the same time the effects of post-colonialism are not easily acknowledged in Canada. Researchers at the University of California suggest that epigenetic markers of trauma can indeed be passed from one generation to the next.

“I was born into violence. My father grew up into violence. He was abused by the nuns at his school as a child,” Kim said. “I realized this ordeal had to stop with me, if I wanted to protect the ones coming after,” She remarked.

If the dawn of their rebirth brought Matt and Kim together, the commitment to Strength Athletics cemented their relationship and mission in life. Reconnecting to their language and tradition helped them rediscover resilience and their Indigenous roots.

“I am my ancestors’ wildest dream,” said Kim once recalling her very first competition. Echoed by Matt: “Victimhood is a widespread mentality within reserves - I want to prove we are not victims, as long as we don’t give up on ourselves.”

Matt Corbiere recalls his past and  shows an old picture of himself, drunk and passed out in the Caribbean. He often carries this photograph with him as a reminder of his self-destructive past. Matt left Manitoulin Island in his twenties to pursue a lucrative job in the Alberta oil fields, but soon his life spiraled into alcoholism and depression.

Matt Corbiere is seen walking through the bush around Jerusalem Hill, the place where he used to hang out as a teenager, with other Indigenous kids from M'Chigeeng First Nation.

Matt Corbiere watches a video of a European strongman competition and works out at the M'Chigeeng hockey arena. Matt taught himself the ins and outs of strongman events through videos and books, plus several hours of practice in his makeshift gym. 

Matt Corbiere, right, and his partner Kim Pahpeguish joke around as they wait for Matt’s old truck to warm up. Mat and Kim are Indigenous strength athletes members of ACAFA/CAASA (Alliance Canadienne des Athlètes de Force Amateur), Canada’s sanctioned strongman/woman body. 

Kim Pahpeguish is seen during a training session lead by her partner Matt Corbiere.

Kim Pahpeguish and Matt Corbiere are seen truck pulling during two different strongman/woman competitions.

Matt Corbiere, right, and his partner Kim Pahpeguish take a post workout ice bath in Mindemoya Lake. 

Kim Pahpeguish massages Matt Corbiere’s shoulder after a competition, using a re-adapted electric saw. 

Kim Pahpeguish and Matt Corbiere carry the implements for their workout on top of the M'Chigeeng escarpment, one of the locations for their makeshift gym.

Kim Pahpeguish and Matt Corbiere during a workout in the bush around the M'Chigeeng escarpment.

Kim Pahpeguish performs a smudging ceremony after a workout.

Kim Pahpeguish and Matt Corbiere pay respect to their ancestors inside a healing lodge. It is not uncommon for Indigenous communities in Canada to struggle with addiction, lateral violence, and chronic health issues - as a result of colonialism and inter-generational trauma. Despite many individuals leaving their reserves attracted by the dominant culture, only reconnecting to their ancestral land and traditions has proven to be effective for Indigenous people in terms of healing. 

Kim Pahpeguish, right, and Matt Corbiere check their hunting rifles. Hunting is an essential part of Indigenous culture. In the case of Matt and Kim it helped them to reconnect to the land where they grew up and is an important source of food and proteins to keep up the hard strength training they endure with on a daily basis.

Matt Corbiere trains in the outdoor gym around his home in M'Chigeeng First Nation.

Matt Corbiere is seen along with fellow strength athletes, during the Canada Day "Kings of Strength" competition, in Trenton, Ontario.

Matt Corbiere lifts a "Circus Dumbbell" during the Mudcat Festival competition, in Dunnville, Ontario. Matt was the overall winner of the event.

Kim Pahpeguish and Matt Corbiere recover after one of the events at Canada Day "Kings of Strength" competition. Canada Day is always a questionable celebration among Indigenous folks. 

Matt Corbiere is seen lifting up a chariot axle bar with wheels during the "Kings of Strength" competition. At his second year in the Canadian pro circuit, Matt placed 13th overall in this important Canada Day event - among several of the best “Strongmen” in the country. 

Kim Pahpeguish warms up before her first ever competition. “Strongwoman is a good life analogy: you confront extreme difficulties under disadvantageous circumstances, but you can rise above them,” she said.

Matt Corbiere deadlifts at the "Static Monster" invitational competition. Once a strength athlete makes a name for himself, he gets invited to several non sanctioned events, to promote the sport. 

Kim Pahpeguish, left, and Matt Corbiere take a selfie on the Grand River to celebrate Matt’s first place and Kim’s second at the Mudcat Festival competition. The 2019 season saw Matt racking up a first, a second place, and a few other relevant placements, while Kim gained her first medal ever. 

Matt Corbiere’s first medal is seen hanging in the kitchen of his home, in M’Chigeeng First Nation. The Wally’s Classic was Matt’s debut in strength athletics competitions. Despite the beginner’s tension, he was able to place first in the novice category. 


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