Saturday, December 18, 2010

Blog blast past: "It's a white man's game"; an examination of racism in minor hockey in Canada

No doubt you heard the awful story about Greg Walsh, the house league hockey coach whom the Ontario Minor Hockey Association suspended for the entire season after his team forfeited a game in which one of his players, Andrew McCullum, was subject to racist abuse. It is embarrassing, speaking as a Canadian who covers hockey, loves hockey and played in the OMHA (1983-96).

Perhaps it's all of a piece with some larger virulence which is going unchecked (particularly on CBC each Saturday night). Either way, this July 14, 2008 post from Duane Rollins (actually, a repost of a newspaper article Duane wrote in '07) showed minor hockey officials in Ontario are resistant to even broach racism. Their attitude hands-off indifference at best and at worst it's enabling by labelling it as quote, unquote "part of the game."

There are always going to be idiots in the world and the best remedy is to call it out. Greg Walsh acted correctly. Cue Rollins, from two years ago:

Normally, driving home from a hockey game is a chance for Denis Commanda to catch up with his son Theorem. An energetic and athletic boy, Theorem is usually a chatterbox during his and Denis' long drives back to their West Nipissing home.

"He'd want to talk about the game," Denis said. "Everything about it. We'd usually talk about everything."

However, the drive back from Theorem’s March 20 game against a North Bay team was different. On that day, instead of the sound of an excited teenager filling the air, there was silence.

Denis says he wasn't talking that day because he was too angry. He suspects that Theorem was too sad.

Both father and son were responding to an incident that occurred about midway through the third period of the game. It wasn't something that would have been obvious to most of the people watching the game.

Actually, only a select few people were likely aware that anything had happened at all.

What happened was this: Theorem and the opposing goaltender became involved in a discussion. The North Bay player became angry and responded by directing a racial slur at Theorem.

He called him a "bush nigger," referring to Theorem’s Aboriginal heritage. It was the second time this season that Theorem’s team, which has five Aboriginal players, had experienced racism while playing the North Bay team.

In many ways, Denis says that he shouldn't be surprised that these incidents took place. After all, being called a wagon burner, or worse, was a nightly experience for him when he played junior hockey in the '70s. Back then, he dealt with the slurs the way that you would expect a junior hockey player in the '70s to do so -- with his fists.

However, he says that the times have changed. Or, at least they should have.

"I thought we evolved, you know," he said. "I don't think we should have to deal with that type of thing anymore. It discourages the kids."

Not isolated

Incidents like the Commandos experienced aren’t isolated to Northern Ontario. In March, several Six Nations players and fans say they had to deal with similar things during two separate playoff series with the Eastern Ontario town of Campbellford.

(Campbellford, eh? -- Ed.)

During the Ontario Minor Hockey Association all-Ontario midget CC semi-final, the Six Nations players say they were subjected to racial slurs from fans located immediately above the player’s bench. Six Nations players say they had beer poured on them from the crowd while the slurs were being shouted.

In a video of the game taken by a Six Nations fan, there is clear evidence of a young man pulling a silver can from his pants while standing above the Six Nations bench. However, you cannot understand what the fans are saying in the video.

Players and fans of the Six Nations bantam team say they had a similar experience during their OMHA final series with Campbellford.

And while covering the final game of that series, I witnessed behaviour of some Campbellford fans that was, if not racist, then certainly distrustful of Six Nations’ people.

Unaware of my affiliation with an Aboriginal publication, a Campbellford fan approached me prior to the game to offer a bit of advice.

“Watch yourself,” the woman dressed in the Campbellford team colours of black and gold said. “They will spit in your (food) from above.

“Be careful,” she added ominously.

Later, while shooting photographs in the penalty box, I heard a penalized Campbellford player say, “Stupid Indians. I fucking hate them.”

Not a new thing

It's not a new thing, of course. Aboriginals have dealt with racial slurs for as long as they have playing hockey. The unspoken code amongst Native players is that there are two acceptable ways to deal with it -- beat 'em on the scoreboard, or just beat 'em up.

"It's a white man's game," former Boston Bruins tough guy Stan Jonathan, a Six Nations native, said. "They would call me a wahoo and a wagon burner and all sorts of things. You just have to learn to take care of yourself if you want to be successful."

Taking care of himself was something that Jonathan never had difficulty with. In just over six full NHL seasons, he spent the equivalent of 12 and a half games in the penalty box. He added 91 goals, including 27 in 1977-78, but it was his toughness that Jonathan was best known for.

In that he was typical of Aboriginal players. Although there have been exceptions, the normal way a Native player makes it to the NHL is with his fists. There is a long history of Aboriginal enforcers in the NHL, from Jonathan to Bob Probert to current-day players like Jonathan Tootoo and Chris Simon.

That toughness is a source of pride amongst many Native hockey fans and players. And it speaks to an overall code of behaviour that has ruled hockey for generations.

If you are wronged, you take care of it yourself, the code says. You do not look for outsiders to fight you battles. Outsiders are not to be trusted.

Don’t want to hear it.

A cheerful voice answered the phone when I called the head office of the Northern Ontario Hockey Association March 30.

"Good morning, NOHA. How can I help you?"

"I'm calling from an Aboriginal publication in Southern Ontario. I have a letter that was," I said before the voice cut me off.

"I know what you are calling about and I don't want to hear any more," it says, more serious now. "I'll take your name and number and pass it on."

"I don't want to hear any more." It was a common response to my requests.

Three calls to Hockey Canada -- none returned.

Calls to several minor hockey officials throughout the province -- none returned.

A call to the coach of the player involved in the act of racism directed towards Theorem Commanda--not returned.

Additionally, no one from Campbellford was willing to talk. Actually, the town’s minor hockey vice president, Fred Todd, indicated that it was the position of the organization that the OMHA would speak for them.

“I have nothing to say,” he said in March 2007. “Talk to the president of the OMHA. What he says is our position.”

And the NOHA never did get back to me.

Denis says the reluctance to talk should be expected. Canadians, whether they are involved in hockey or not, have a tendency to view themselves as “nice,” he says. And nice people don’t make racial slurs.

“They don’t want to deal with it,” Denis said. “But, they need to. I want to make sure that they do.”

OMHA executive director Richard Ropchan was the only hockey official to respond to a request to be interviewed. He indicated that the OMHA did not typically get involved in specific hockey games or series. However, the game officials do have the authority to call a game if they feel that the players’ safety is in jeopardy.

Local officials can also step in if things become problematic, Ropchan said.

In the Campbellford-Six Nations midget series the OMHA took the “unusual” step of sending an observer to the games, Ropchan said. He said that the observer was happy with what he saw during the series.

“Both teams and fans appeared to get along,” he said.

When asked if the OMHA had ever considered requiring racial sensitivity training for its members, Ropchan seemed to be taken aback. It appeared that it was something that he had not considered before.

“We don’t really have anything like that,” he said.

It should be about the game

Ultimately, that’s the type of thing that Denis would like to see. Having played hockey at a high level, he says he understands that sometimes emotions get the better of people. However, if they have a better understanding of where someone is coming from, it’s less likely that they will cross a line, he suggests.

“We just want a chance to talk to the (North Bay) team,” he said. “We want to teach them a bit about our culture.”

The North Bay player that made the slur was asked by his coach to apologize to Theorem after the incident. He did so, and, although Denis says that he is happy that he did, he suggests that it isn’t nearly enough.

“The longer it went, the angrier I got,” he says. “The more I wanted to fight it.”

In a formal complaint to the NOHA, Denis has asked that the player make a written apology and that the coach, managers, trainers and players of the North Bay team, as well as representatives of the NOHA, have an Aboriginal speaker address them. The speaker would talk about the value of multiethnic cultures and about how destructive racial slurs can be.

Denis also asked that the North Bay player be monitored moving forward.

As someone that loves the game, Denis says it would be the right move for the NOHA to make.

“These kids were picked for the team based on their skills and abilities as hockey players,” he said. “At no time did their racial background come into play. That’s the way it should be.”

Denis made the complaint to the NOHA on March 2. He’s still waiting to hear back.

Note: The last time I touched base — about July 2007 —the NOHA had still not resolved the complaint.


Andrew Bucholtz said...

Good story, Duane. Where'd this originally run? It's pretty disappointing that no one from most of the minor hockey associations was willing to comment: you'd think someone would take a stand that this is wrong and unacceptable.

P.S. It's Jordin Tootoo, not Jonathan, and he's more of a checking-line guy than a true enforcer in my opinion, but he's certainly a tough customer.

Duane Rollins said...

One of the local papers on Six Nations.

It didn't surprise me that the Cambellford people didn't want to talk--the two series I wrote about were ugly (and not every Six Nations fan was an angel either). I was hung-up on a couple times when trying to get someone (I even tried to get the mayor to comment).

Hockey Canada disappointed me--and I called multiple times both before and after the article ran.

For what it's worth the OMHA was always quick to return my calls, even when the issue I was calling about was uncomfortable (which it usually was)...

sager said...

Good stuff ... father and son here were right to be angry. Like the dad said, I'd like to think we've evolved.

I'm also reminded of how frustrating it was trying to chase stories like this when you work for a small paper -- to the point of where you would just perish the thought because you needed to make deadline. Plus, minor sports folk can be very good at giving the runaround.

Oh, that's an internal matter ... We don't deal with that ... That's Frank's responsibility, but he's not here today ... sorry, I don't have his cell number ... You'll have to talk to the OMHA.

That's kind of telling about certain (not all, not even half) people who go into minor hockey -- it's their little power-trip. That's why they're in mortal terror of ever giving an opinion or saying something that's not in the officially provided handbook.

To them, it's probably just "some reporter" being nosy. It's not a public concern when you have members of your community, at an event under your organization's banner, behaving despicably. Plausible deniability, people.

Sportsdump said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this blog article; you certainly peeled away the layers exposing the bare bones

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Superfun Happy Slide said...

Excellent piece, I grew up in North Bay too and can certainly attest to the fact that bias and bigotry was a fact of life in the Gateway to the North. However, to be totally honest, the racial back and forth was engaged up by all parties: English, French, and Aboriginal. Duane's article paints the Bay as a place where Aboriginals were victims; certainly Indigenous inequality is the backdrop to the narrative. Well, I can personally attest that racist acts were not the exclusive domain of the white devil.

Take a look at my blog for the rest of my story.

sager said...

It goes both ways, definitely ... this will come out all wrong, but I recall reading some travel expert saying if you ever want to be on thev receiving end of racial hatred as a white person, go outside the resorts in Kingston, Jamaica.

Thing is, it's not just bigotry here, it's letting bigotry play into the exercising of power. Although that's no worse than what some (not all!) band council muckamucks sometimes inflict on their own constituents!

Superfun Happy Slide said...

Aboriginal organizations engage in institutional acts of racism, like all forms of bureaucracy do; bigotry is not an exclusive right claimed by anyone. Duane's piece bothers me because it paints North Bay as the collective villian. I grew up there and walked those streets before. I know the power of exclusion cuts in all directions, not just the direction the article focuses upon. I just had to provide a little balance to the piece.

Btw, I didn't advertise my blog to gather viewer, just to express my point of view in this case.

sager said...

Fair enough, I know you're coming from a good place ... although I don't know if he was singling out North Bay, since the piece also referenced incidents in Campbellford, Ontario.

I cannot speak for Duane. I took his point to be that minor hockey associations really are not equipped for dealing with racial animosity (which again, goes both ways) and milder diversity issues. Yet if racial epithets are hurled around the hockey rink, we expect them to deal with it ... maybe it's more for someone else to address, but you know hockey people, they don't want any outside control.

Duane Rollins said...

You must understand that the article was written for an aboriginal publication. Getting into the issue of reverse racism would not have gone over very well and, frankly, is irrelevant to the story I was telling.

The underlying point was that minor hockey in Canada is not equipped to deal with racism of any kind.