Black hockey players in Alberta call for more inclusion in the sport

Hockey may be Canada's game, but some Black people in the sport are calling for more inclusion and support when dealing with racism.

One player says making the game welcoming rests on everyone's shoulders

Hockey may be Canada's game, but some Black people in the sport are calling for more inclusion and support when dealing with racism. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Like many Canadian kids growing up in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Brandon Erlinger-Ford loved hockey.

"It was really fun because there wasn't really a lot to do back then in Fort McMurray before the [oil and gas] boom," he said. "It gave me something to do and I made a lot of friends."

In his first season playing hockey, his team took a trip to Edmonton to watch the Oilers.

Erlinger-Ford, who is of Guyanese and St. Lucian descent, saw Black players like Anson Carter, Georges Laraque and Mike Grier, who made him feel like he belonged.

Growing up in Fort McMurray, Alta., hockey was a way for Brandon Erlinger-Ford to keep busy and make friends. (Submitted by Brandon-Erlinger Ford)

But that welcoming feeling wasn't always there. At hockey tournaments, parents yelled race-based insults at him and opposition players called him slurs.

His earliest memory of that kind of harassment was when he was seven, and was called the N-word by an opposing player after scoring a goal.

"I remember telling my coach, 'What does it mean? This kid called me this word.' And I just saw the disgust on his face. He told the ref but the ref didn't really do anything about it." 

But he never considered quitting.

"If I quit, that's just letting them win, letting their words affect me."

Brandon Erlinger-Ford saw Black players like Anson Carter, Georges Laraque and Mike Grier, who made him feel like he belonged. (Submitted by Brandon-Erlinger Ford)

Parents says racism more subtle

A Black parent — whose identity CBC Calgary chose to keep confidential due to concerns about retaliation — believes racism in hockey is systemic and more subtle than slurs.

"There are very racist people who don't tell you that they're racist but they show you through their actions," he said.

The man, whose child plays hockey in one of Alberta's medium-sized centres, says his family has made good friends through the sport but are still treated like hockey is not for them.

"I just force myself to exist where I'm made to feel like I don't belong," he said.

"[Parents and coaches] ignore the conversations you're trying to have; they don't look at you, they just assume you don't exist ... it's painful." 

He feels his child is unfairly targeted by some coaches, like when he broke a stick after a loss. 

"About six kids did that on the ice. They got angry, they are just being kids. A coach came to him, singled him out and said, 'I'm gonna punish you for your behaviour.'"

Concerns about reporting racism

The man called out that coach but worries about how addressing racism could affect his child's career.

"I know that might have consequences. The system is what I really cannot challenge, the system is set up to favour those who are privileged and those who are connected." 

According to Erlinger-Ford, his mother had similar concerns about reporting harassment.

"Sometimes when she would go to complain about it, [she felt] it would hinder my opportunities a little bit because they didn't want to be confronted with racism," he said.

In an email, a spokesperson for Hockey Alberta stated that an online form is available for individuals to bring forward allegations of discrimination, racism and harassment. 

"Each allegation is reviewed, and then referred as is appropriate to ensure that a full investigation is undertaken."

The form requires the person making the allegation to identify themselves but does not require identification of their team or minor hockey association.

Saroya Tinker plays professionally for the Toronto Six and mentors young female BIPOC players through her Saroya Strong program. (Submitted by Saroya Tinker)

Saroya Tinker believes more needs to be done by those in the sport to make hockey inclusive. She plays for the Toronto Six, in the Premier Hockey Federation — a professional women's hockey league — and lives in Calgary during the off-season.

"I think it's very easy for our white allies to educate themselves," said Tinker. 

"We're continuing to see these problems happen simply because people haven't made a big enough effort to educate themselves as allies and to implement it and take accountability and actionable steps toward creating a better culture in hockey."

Through her mentorship program, Saroya Strong, she books ice times, organizes workouts and offers one-on-one mentorship to young BIPOC female players in Calgary and Toronto. 

"I think it's super important for me to continue to be a role model and use my platform to the best of my abilities to make hockey more accessible for BIPOC women." 

Saroya Tinker won a silver medal with Team Canada in the 2016 IIHF World Women's U18 Championships. (Submitted by Saroya Tinker)

'It's different if you're rich or not'

While representation and tackling racism are important, Tinker said accessibility and affordability are also big issues. 

"It's a challenge to get into the sport but it's also a challenge to stick with the sport," Tinker said.

Fees for competitive hockey can add up to thousands of dollars, in addition to the cost of gear and equipment.

In Erlinger-Ford's case, he said he lost his love for competitive hockey and moved to house league partially due to financial disparities. 

"It's different if you're rich or not."

He said his parents could afford the fees but not the latest equipment like many of his teammates' parents. 

"I was probably the last person on my team still using a wooden stick and old equipment and I would get made fun of."

Tinker believes this is improving as organizations like Black Girl Hockey Club that provide funding and equipment for specific groups receive more support.

"Things are changing and it is good to see these new BIPOC faces and get us to the point where it's normalized."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.