British Columbia

'Our voices are being silenced': Athletes speak out about media ban at All Native Basketball Tournament

Indigenous basketball players are speaking out after a First Nations community tournament banned most media outlets from covering any negative aspects the games.

Organizer says an Indigenous radio station has purchased exclusive broadcast rights

Vanessa Parnell, who has played in the All Native Basketball Tournament for almost five years, says Indigenous players feel their voices are being censored by tournament organizers. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

First Nations basketball players say they feel silenced after learning most media outlets are banned from covering the long-running All Native Basketball Tournament in Prince Rupert, B.C., following critical news coverage of the games.

"It's really unfortunate to see how our voices are currently being silenced," said Vanessa Parnell who is Tsimshian, Haida and Nisga'a and plays in the tournament for the All My Relations team.

"This isn't the spirit of the tournament as far as I've ever known it, and I've played in this tournament since I was 18, so 22 years," said Jerome Turner who plays for the Gitxsan Masters.

The All Native Basketball Tournament began in 1960 in the North Coast community of Prince Rupert and sees dozens of men and women's teams across British Columbia compete for a week in February.

Every tournament, CFNR, an Indigenous radio station based in Terrace, B.C., buys the exclusive broadcast rights to cover the games, while several other television, print and radio outlets are also allowed inside the venue to report on the games.

This year, however, the tournament's organizing committee chair Peter Haugen, who is non-Indigenous, told CBC producers and other station executives that they would no longer be allowed entrance because of past media coverage of political issues, such as teams protesting the committee's LNG sponsors

In an email to CBC, Haugen said the tournament is being live streamed by the media outlet that paid for the rights so there is no black-out. 

While CFNR has always had exclusive rights, this is the first year other stations are barred access to the event venue at the Prince Rupert Civic Centre. 

Peter Haugan is the chair of the All Native Basketball Tournament Committee in Prince Rupert, B.C. He is a non-Indigenous man who has been on the committee for several years. He told the CBC that he does not think politics should be a part of the games. (Facebook)

Missed opportunity 

Speaking with CBC producers over the phone, Haugen said he feared that the games are becoming too political.

He pointed to media coverage of a Haitian-born basketball player who was adopted by a Heiltsuk family, but wasn't allowed to play in the tournament because of his lack of Indigenous blood.

Haugen said such negative press was no longer welcome. 

He also said he may make a concession if he is able to review all scripts and online stories before they go to air or are published, something most media outlets forbid. 

In a Facebook post following CBC's radio coverage of this story, committee members wrote that "sports reporters are welcome." 

Jerome Turner has played in the All Native Basketball Tournament for 22 years. This year he is playing with the Gitxsan Masters. He is concerned that the Tournament organizers are limiting players opportunities by not allowing certain media at the games. (Wawmeesh Hamilton)

Indigenous ball players in the tournament say all stories are important to tell, not just the positive ones. 

"If we're really here to focus on showcasing Indigenous culture, we need to understand the struggle that comes with that as well," Parnell said. 

Other players feel that not allowing in local and national broadcasters could be a missed opportunity for those whose talents may catch the eyes of scouts.

"There are players that are good enough, like several players, good enough to play in the CCCA [Canadian Collegiate Basketball Association], if not the NBA [National Basketball Association] in this tournament and they deserve to have those lights shone on them," Turner said.

Right to free expression

While some players say they understand both sides, and see how basketball should be focused on the game rather than politics, many also see the need for freedom of expression.

"You should have those fundamental rights and freedoms to act on your beliefs and your expression and have access to media to be able to express yourself in any way possible," said Judy Carlick Pearson, who is Tsimshian and has played in the tournament for more than two decades. 

She and Parnell say that while the All Native Basketball Tournament is about the sport, it is also a space for Indigenous people to gather and share ideas.

"There's people saying, 'Well, you know, this isn't the platform to do it.' But if you have three thousand plus people in a venue, you know, there is no better time to do it," Carlick Pearson said.

The opening ceremony for the tournament is Sunday, Feb. 9., at the Prince Rupert Civic Centre. It runs Feb. 10-16.


Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is an ​award-winning investigative journalist. She is the host of Land Back, a six-part CBC British Columbia original podcast that uncovers land theft and land reclamation in Canada. Sterritt is known for her impactful journalism on the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in Canada. She is a proud member of the Gitxsan Nation.