British Columbia

Basketball turns political with messages of support for Wet'suwet'en Nation

Politics mixed with sport at First Nation basketball tournament in Northern B.C. over the weekend, but organizers argue political statements should stay on the sidelines.

Organizers of the All Native Basketball Tournament say the focus should be sport, not politics

Lax Kw'alaams dancers from the opening ceremony of the All Native Basketball Tournament on Sunday. (Nicole Oud/CBC)

Politics mixed with sport at a First Nation basketball tournament in Northern B.C. over the weekend, but organizers argue political statements should stay on the sidelines.

More than four dozen teams from across B.C. and Alaska gathered in Prince Rupert for the 60th All Native Basketball Tournament, which started on Sunday and runs until the end of the week.

While most players wore their team's jersey, some took to black T-shirts with the phrase "Wet'suwet'en Strong" on the front and "unceded" on the back.

One team walked in with a banner expressing support for Wet'suwet'en hereditary chief's opposition to the LNG Canada pipeline set to run through Northern B.C

"It's about basketball. It's about the sport," said tournament chairman Peter Haugan, emphasizing that politics should be left aside.  

Some of the players wearing T-shirts in support of the Wet'suwet'en. (Nicole Oud/CBC)

'Let the best team win'

Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs are at the centre of opposition to a natural gas pipeline in Northern B.C.  RCMP arrested 14 people at a blockade last month before reaching a deal with the chiefs.

In the past, tournament organizers banned anti-LNG displays from teams and fans. Haugan said participants are well aware of the tournament's stance on political messages during games.

"You don't want different groups competing with one another over something that has nothing to do with sport," he said.

"It's about coming here to a neutral court, playing a game of basketball with neutral officials and let the best team win."

Adam Elbissar, owner of the local store, Drift, originally planned to sell mostly casual wear when he opened last spring but turned to basketball equipment because of the tournament. He's supplying all the basketballs for the games. (Nicole Oud/CBC)

For others in the community, the tournament is a major highlight on the calendar and thousands come to watch and participate.

Hotels all around the city fill up quickly,  with some people booking rooms up to six months in advance.

"We have a couple of teams that stayed with us for years and years and years now," said Ashley Daigle, general manager of the Prestige Hotel.

Thousands of people come to Prince Rupert to play and watch the week-long basketball tournament. (Nicole Oud/CBC)

She described the week of the tournament as very hectic but fun.

"I don't get much time to get out and enjoy the games but I get to, at least, meet all the players that come to stay with us," she said.

"I get to hear about the wins and that part is really exciting."

Politics mixed with sport at First Nation basketball tournament in Northern B.C. over the weekend but organizers argue political statements should stay on the sidelines. 7:40

All week, CBC's Nicole Oud is covering the All Native Basketball Tournament which runs Feb. 10-16, 2019. Tune into CBC Radio One's Daybreak North to hear more.

With files from Nicole Oud and Daybreak North