Last week, the Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc First Nation in Kamloops, B.C. announced that the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found on the site of a former residential school. The news shocked and devastated much of the country. Indigenous communities grieved openly and looked inward to their communities for comfort in light of the horrific news.
It took more than two days for the Canadian government to declare it would lower flags on all federal buildings and the Peace Tower to half-mast – but only after the request was posted on Twitter by R. Stacey Laforme, chief of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation.
This delay in taking action to immediately address the grief and trauma Indigenous communities are experiencing is a problem. The anger is palpable.
If you had no prior knowledge about Residential Schools until you heard about the 215 children’s remains that were uncovered recently.... you should absolutely be outraged by the level at which you were lied to; by the secrets kept from you about the true history of “Canada”.— Chief Lady Bird 🦅 ᐅᑮᒪᑫᐧᐱᓀᐢ (@chiefladybird) May 31, 2021
We could dive deeply into why teams like the Toronto Raptors issued a statement and lowered the flags at the OVO Athletic Centre or why the Canadian Football League and Edmonton Elks issued statements on social media, and why the Canadian Premier League and its clubs spoke out.
But there was little reaction from the hockey world until the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) held a moment of silence to mourn the 215 lost lives before the final game of the Secret Dream Gap Tour on Sunday night in Calgary.
Last week, the bodies of 215 children were found on the grounds of Kamloops Indian Residential School in Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation territory.— PWHPA (@PWHPA) May 30, 2021
Today, the PWHPA mourns these 215 lost lives.
We encourage all Canadians to visit https://t.co/4xazGPKDXa to learn more. pic.twitter.com/lDIM9VyGMd
By Monday morning, neither the National Hockey League nor any of its teams had issued a statement or posted an acknowledgement of the tragedy on social media. That matters when it is abundantly clear that racism remains a prevalent problem in hockey.
Just last week, Edmonton Oilers defenceman Ethan Bear of the Ochapowace Nation was the target of racist abuse on social media after a playoff loss. Bear courageously faced cameras and spoke out against this wretched behaviour. The tweet featuring Bear’s video statement is pinned to the Oilers’ Twitter account, but the team has yet to say anything about the children’s bodies found in Kamloops, or the effect on the community.
How could the Oilers or other teams be so fresh from speaking out in support of Bear but then stay silent on matters that are inherently tied to the racism Bear faces? If Bear elected to speak publicly that is his choice. But his comments should not provide a shield for organizations, front offices, referees, coaches, or players to not think about their own relationship with anti-racism efforts in hockey.
Bear stated that he was speaking out for the “next generation.” But what about his team’s support for the previous generation? What about their memory? It costs nothing for a team to show compassion and empathy. We know that hockey communities rally together in the face of tragic events.
The present can’t be fully embraced without a reckoning of the past. The reality is that the last federally run residential school closed in 1996. The efforts to rid Indigenous communities of their beautiful traditions and customs was an act of cultural genocide, and hockey was used in that brutal plot to “assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of the Dominion.”
Indigenous people are deeply connected to the world of hockey through residential schools. In some situations, hockey was the only respite from abuse, homesickness, isolation and anxiety. It was an opportunity to travel, make friends, and enjoy the sport. There were moments of joy within the calamity.
Hockey was once a tool of oppression, but it can now be used as a tool of collaboration and accountability, which is why the sport’s organizations, team executives, coaches, and players need to pay attention.
Some teams were prompted by their own humanity, recognizing the deep pain and ongoing trauma of Indigenous communities warranted a statement of support and condolence.
The Vancouver Canucks posted a strong statement Monday afternoon that included the sentence: “We acknowledge the genocide of the Indigenous community and as Canadians must do more toward real truth and reconciliation.”
The use of language is critical. Indigenous communities don’t need the words of settlers to verify what happened to them. But the very least we can do is recognize the brutal history of anti-Indigeneity that is part of the fabric of this country and has implications today.
The Toronto Maple Leafs held a “moment of reflection” for the victims before Game 7 against the Montreal Canadiens on Monday night. The Canadiens issued a statement a few hours before that same game. The Winnipeg Jets also shared their thoughts on social media.
On-air commentators and analysts wore orange ribbons and clothing in support of the Indigenous children who perished due to state-sanctioned violence. The National Hockey League Players’ Association also issued a statement.
In addition to these efforts, there must be a place for continued learning about the Canadian history that many of us were never taught in the schools we attended. This deliberate exclusion was an intentional omission to devalue the lives of the people whose land was stolen. It is never too late to learn, and it should be a high priority to hockey communities and allies alike.
I wonder how young Indigenous hockey players across the country felt when the teams they love and cheer for did not offer any public support to Indigenous communities or organizations for days. Do we see them? Does hockey care?
This isn’t about rushing to comment, it is about committing to understanding why recognition and steps towards reconciliation matter.
Last year Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, who hails from Ulkatcho First Nation, joined the voices of Black and Indigenous players calling out not only racism in hockey but in the history of Indigenous peoples. Price and Bear should not have to carry this mantle alone.
In 2020, the PWHPA committed to anti-racism education led by Dr. Courtney Szto, and had land acknowledgement stickers on their helmets throughout the Dream Gap Tour. Their commitment is not simply words; it is action. Their intention is not just to talk the talk but walk the walk. With all the resources available to men’s hockey, this is possible and necessary.
Hockey connects people and can also be used to teach those who love the sport about the times when hockey wasn’t a tool of empowerment or goodness. These stories are all a part of hockey history, and denying the bad hinders the good.
Leagues, teams and players have considerable platforms with the means to share information and be positive influences. They should show empathy and compassion not because they feel forced, but because it is the right thing to do.
As teams continue to post and express their condolences I hope they consider ways in which they can respond in a sincere and timely manner to events that deeply hurt part of the hockey community.
Judging from what we know of real Canadian history, this will not be the last time.