As the Prince Rupert Renshikan Karate Club members embark on 2015’s first full session – a three-month training block from March to May – they’ll be training as a part of Prince Rupert history.
The club celebrates its 40th year of operation here on the North Coast, getting its start back in 1975 when Corp. Bill Pitcher of the Prince Rupert RCMP initiated the club as a civic centre program.
In the years since, the Prince Rupert Karate Club has made the ideals and values of self-preservation come to the forefront of growing bodies and minds in the coastal city.
Now humbly located at the upper floor of Fisherman’s Hall on Fraser Street and operating on an almost nightly basis during the week, save for the summer time, head instructor and Go Dan (fifth-level black belt) Wade Wilkins provides his students with the proper training, discipline and mental attitude needed to have success in the highly-individualistic but team-reliant sport.
Wilkins is a fair instructor and a self-described tough one at that.
“I’m amazed I have any [eager and bright-eyed youngsters eager who keep on coming back],” he laughed.
“I’m pretty strict. We do play games – we do the mats with them and we do a little bit of weapons [training] with them, not much but we try to give them a good variety.”
While the club has had a variety of dojo instructors over the years, Wilkins was actually one of the kids encouraging Pitcher to start the club up in 1975 when he was just 14.
“One of my friend’s brother, Ken Low … he knew Kung Fu, so he was in town for the holidays and he was teaching Kung Fu classes and I was taking it with all our friends,” said Wilkins.
“So we got training with him and then he went back to school and [we were left hanging], like ‘Now what?’ … finally Bill Pitcher moved [to town], but he didn’t start it right away. We finally convinced him to start it up.”
The Prince Rupert club’s roots even reach the Lower Mainland as Low, a ninth-degree master in the art, currently operates the Ken Low’s Shaolin Kung Fu Institute in Vancouver and serves as the promoter of the annual Can-Am International Martial Arts Tournament in Burnaby.
When Pitcher started up the organization, he kept the student cap at 25 and didn’t accept children. That changed within the next 10 years and now kids as young as eight can take part.
“We’ve gone through a few changes and had different Senseis over the years,” said Wilkins.
“At [the beginning] we were under the Tsuruoka style of karate (Masami Tsuruoka is widely recognized as the “Father of Canadian Karate”) and our head Sensei, David Akutagawa … was trying to find someone who taught karate and Tsuruoka Sensei was pretty well it at that time. He found him in Toronto and aligned himself with him,” said the instructor.
From Shotokan (bigger motions, bigger stance) to Chito-ryu (additional strength and stability in stances from lower body muscle training and frequent rapid, rotational movements) to Shito-ryu (very fast, but still artistic and powerful), the club’s style has never remained static.
The martial art’s big guns have even visited Prince Rupert when, back in 1982, Chitose Tsuyoshi, the founder of the Japanese style Chito-ryu karate visited the dojo.
“I wasn’t there at the time but our instructor said he could grab you and [from the grab alone] it would leave bruises. She said you couldn’t touch him because he knew before you were going to attack exactly where you were going,” said Wilkins.
“And this guy’s the best in Okinawa (the birthplace of modern karate). He had been at it for 70 or 80 years [prior to passing away in 1984], since he was a young kid and he helped introduce karate to Japan back in 1921 or 1922 so he was quite the fella … that was one of the most exciting things to happen to the club itself.”
Wilkins has maintained his emphasis on the holistic side of the martial art versus the competitive side since he took over the club in 1990.
Along with Kevin Forssell, his training and instructing partner, Wilkins has always found that self-confidence and composure can derive straight from the teachings they continues to pass on today.
“The way I want to teach it is for the mind, body and spirit … where you’re training for self-preservation rather than self-defence. Self-defence is a part of self-preservation but we’ve got to think of the other things like our health and our state of mind. It’s learning how to use your body and control your mind,” said the mentor.
Countless students over the years have won regional awards from area competitions in Kitimat and Prince George and if a student wants to make Team B.C., they would have to take more than a few frequent flights down to the Lower Mainland – something that’s pretty rare based on where Prince Rupert is situated geographically in Wilkins’ experience.
The head instructor is still in the early stages of planning something to celebrate the 40th birthday of the club if he decides to, but he always keeps a momentous keepsake of the dojo’s history close to him – something he started long ago.
“I’ve got a binder at home with every newspaper clipping from since we started,” he said.
“I went to the library and went through the microfiche (a sheet of microfilm preserving a considerable number of pages of printed text) and found all the articles. I’ve got ‘em all.”