HALIFAX — Starting Wednesday, players in the Maritime Junior Hockey League will be donning specially designed jerseys to celebrate Indigenous groups in the country as a part of the organization’s Week of Reconciliation.

The league’s 12 teams will take turns sporting jerseys that have an image of children outside a residential school, along with the phrase “Every Child Matters.” Each team will wear the jerseys, which also incorporate their logos, for one home game between now and Dec. 5.

League president Steve Dykeman said in an interview Tuesday the league’s governors agreed to honour Indigenous communities after getting good feedback on a jersey project last year designed to celebrate front-line workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

They were motivated, he added, by the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves of Indigenous children at residential schools in the country that began earlier this year.

In May, a First Nation in Kamloops, B.C. announced they’d found what are believed to be the remains of 215 Indigenous children in unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school. The following month, Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan revealed the discovery of more than 700 unmarked graves.

“We wanted to have some kind of recognition,” Dykeman said. “The goal really is just about showing our respect and shining a light on what happened.”

Bob Gloade, chief of the Millbrook First Nation in Truro, N.S., called the jersey campaign a positive initiative.

"When you have Indigenous community members ... playing in the league and being a part of (the initiative), it's very pleasing to see," Gloade said in an interview Tuesday. "I just look at it as a positive step forward and part of reconciliation."

Jersey designer Jeff Rector said that along with the “ominous” picture of a group of young Indigenous children gathered in front of Kamloops Indian Residential School, the phrase “Every Child Matters” is written in English, Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqey, the main dialects of Indigenous communities in the Maritimes.

Rector said he consulted members of local First Nations communities to help him capture aspects of Indigenous groups on the East Coast in his design process. Like Dykeman, he said he hopes the images convey a message of awareness and respect.

“I wanted to show the children,” he said. “They are images that have been burned into our minds since the news has broken. It’s something that we all need to remember and keep close to us as we work toward reconciliation and building a brighter future together.”

One of the consultants brought on to help with the design process was Everett Sanipass, a former NHL player from the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick.

Sanipass, a forward who played during six seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks and Quebec Nordiques, said in an interview Wednesday that the leaguewide jersey initiative reflects the teamwork that is key to the sport.

"We can't move forward without educating ourselves and coming to an understanding that this is history," Sanipass said. "The message is clear: people want change, they want reconciliation."

The new jerseys will debut Wednesday night as the Grand Falls Rapids host the Miramichi Timberwolves.

After the special reconciliation schedule, the teams will auction off the jerseys and proceeds will be given to Indigenous communities in the region.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 24, 2021.


This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.