'Lines were crossed': First Nations say new junior hockey league divides Indigenous, non-Indigenous players

Five First Nations worry a move to create a new Junior B hockey league for central and southern Manitoba communities is creating a divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous players.

'We have to eliminate race-based decision making at all levels, especially in sport': Peguis chief

Chief Glenn Hudson of Peguis First Nation speaks at a press conference Friday. Peguis is among five Manitoba First Nations that have launched a lawsuit and are asking for an injunction to block the newly formed Capital Region Junior Hockey League. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Five First Nations worry a move to create a new Junior B hockey league for central and southern Manitoba communities creates a divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous players.

The Manitoba First Nations have launched a lawsuit and are asking for an injunction to block the newly formed Capital Region Junior Hockey League (CRJHL) from carrying on with its inaugural season, which began last month.

The five communities behind the lawsuit are Peguis First Nation, Norway House Cree Nation, Opaskwayak Cree Nation, Fisher River Cree Nation and Cross Lake First Nation.

The CRJHL was created in May when the Arborg Ice Dawgs, the Lundar Falcons, the Selkirk Fishermen, the St. Malo Warriors and the North Winnipeg Satellites withdrew from the Keystone Junior Hockey League, which also included the five First Nation teams.

Zachary Spence is 14 and plays bantam hockey. He'll be moving into the KJHL age bracket in a few years. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Peguis First Nation Chief Glenn Hudson said the move means there are now two leagues — one for non-Indigenous communities and one for Indigenous communities.

"Just look at the composition of the league.… It's all non-First Nations and the north is all First Nations. Why is it separated that way?" he asked at a press conference Friday.

"We have to eliminate race-based decision making at all levels, especially in sport.… That's the basis of why we want to look at challenging that new league.

"We want to be able to have hockey in our communities," he said.

"Lines were crossed and this needs to be changed."

Chief Glenn Hudson of Peguis First Nation was joined by young hockey players from the community at a press conference Friday. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Zachary Spence is 14 and plays bantam hockey for Peguis. He said he was looking forward to playing in the KJHL in a few years when he was old enough. Now he's wondering if the league will still be around. 

"It worries me 'cause then it means it's not going to be there for the youth to play and it'd be hard for us to get that league back."

Players allegedly poached

The communities filed a statement of claim with Court of Queen's Bench on Oct. 31 against the new league, a number of Interlake hockey teams and the Manitoba Amateur Hockey Association, as well as Hockey Manitoba.

They allege the league has poached players from the First Nations. Hudson said Friday an estimated 20 players were plucked from the ranks of the remaining teams in the Keystone Junior Hockey League, including four from Peguis.

The First Nations are seeking damages for alleged breaches of contracts with players. They allege the governors of the former KJHL teams used confidential information to their advantage for the new league.

None of the allegations in the statement of claim have been proven in court and no statements of defence have been filed as of Friday.

This is something that's important to rural Manitoba and is being done by these teams and these First Nations as a last resort to preserve a big part of their culture and heritage.- Lawyer Jamie Kagan

In a press release, the First Nations said the alleged poaching has depleted remaining teams in the north to the point their viability has been threatened.

The northern teams complained to Hockey Manitoba after the southern teams withdrew from the league. The court documents say the governing body ruled KJHL players had to get a release to register in the new league and pay a $500 fee.

The lawsuit alleges Hockey Manitoba failed to enforce that decision.

Hockey Manitoba executive director Peter Woods said Friday he wouldn't comment on the case while it's before the courts. The Capital Region Junior Hockey League declined to comment.

Reduced travel times

At Friday's press conference, Hudson said the creators of the new league argued that under the split, teams and players will benefit from reduced travel time between games. The CRJHL website says the league "provides an opportunity for players 16-21 years old to play competitive hockey, while still allowing them to attend school or work."

Hudson questioned that argument Friday.

"Peguis is only 30 minutes away from Arborg. It's only 40 minutes away from Lundar," he said.

"Those teams have to travel two hours to St. Malo, and yet we're only 30 and 40 minutes away, so that location reasoning and excuse is not acceptable."

Jamie Kagan is a lawyer representing the First Nations. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

A court date for the case is scheduled for Dec.19.

The KJHL season kicked off for the remaining five teams last weekend, and the First Nations hope the case will see the original league reform with all teams playing together again this season.

"Nobody's particularly happy or thrilled to be involved in litigation related to Junior B hockey," said Jamie Kagan, a lawyer representing the First Nations.

"This is something that's important to rural Manitoba and is being done by these teams and these First Nations as a last resort to preserve a big part of their culture and heritage."

With files from Austin Grabish.

Five First Nations worry a move to create a new Junior B hockey league for central and southern Manitoba communities creates a divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous players. 2:23