First Nations argue new hockey league is 'blatant racism,' segregates Indigenous, non-Indigenous teams

The lawyer for the organizers of a new hockey league argued in court Wednesday the teams were entitled to leave Manitoba’s Keystone Junior Hockey League, and that the five Manitoba First Nations who are now suing them have failed to prove irreparable harm.

Lawyer for Capital Region Junior B league argues teams were entitled to leave, form new league

Peguis First Nation Chief Glenn Hudson speaks to media outside the Winnipeg Law Courts Wednesday afternoon. Peguis First Nation is one of the five First Nations seeking to block a new hockey league. They say the new league separated Indigenous and non-Indigenous teams. (Sarah Petz/CBC)

The lawyer representing a new Manitoba junior hockey league argued in court Wednesday that five Manitoba First Nations suing the Capital Region Junior Hockey League have failed to prove that it poached players, or left the First Nations' teams in jeopardy.

Bill Bowles, who is representing the organizers of the Capital Region Junior Hockey League, told Justice Herbert Rempel that the teams were entitled to leave their old league — the Keystone Junior Hockey League — and that the new league's players are at risk of losing their hockey season over "vague evidence" that the First Nations' teams have suffered a loss.

"And they're asking you [Justice Rempel] to stop 100 kids from playing hockey, for sure, to prevent that uncertain eventuality from happening," he said.

The matter was in court Wednesday for a hearing over whether to block the new league's first season, which began in October, from continuing.

The Capital Region league was created in May, when five teams withdrew from the Junior B Keystone league, leaving only the five First Nation communities in that league.

In addition to their legal concerns, the remaining Keystone teams say the move created separate leagues for Indigenous and non-Indigenous teams.

'The court has no business here'

Now, the five First Nations that are home to the remaining Keystone teams — Peguis First Nation, Norway House Cree Nation, Opaskwayak Cree Nation, Fisher River Cree Nation and Cross Lake First Nation — are suing the new league and Hockey Manitoba.

In October, one of the five remaining Keystone teams, the Fisher River Hawks, announced a one-year leave of absence from the league, further reducing the league's pool.

The Capital Region teams are the Arborg Ice Dawgs, the Lundar Falcons, the Selkirk Fishermen, the St. Malo Warriors and the North Winnipeg Satelites. All five were formerly members of the Keystone league before splitting off in May.

This isn't about travel … it's about a group of people getting together saying, 'We don't want Indigenous players or teams in our league anymore.'- Lawyer Jamie Kagan

Mike Spence, head coach of the Peguis Juniors, said in an interview the result has been a drop in motivation and interest among his players.

"Right now it seems like all our kids are losing interest around this area. It's different," he said.

"We still have players, but it's having a hard time getting them out, getting them motivated to get back into things."

But lawyers for the Capital Region league and Hockey Manitoba argued Wednesday that only four players have officially left the KJHL for teams in the newly formed league — two of whom were free agents anyway.

They also said the First Nations have not exhausted internal appeal processes within Hockey Manitoba.

"The court has no business here. That's the overarching concern," Bowles said.

Creation of league racially motivated: lawyer

Earlier in the day, lawyer Jaimie Kagan, who is representing the five Manitoba First Nations seeking the injunction, told the court that the decision to form a new league — and leaving the First Nations teams out — was racially motivated.

Kagan argued that the organizers of the CRJHL went behind the First Nations' backs to form their own league, under the guise it was about reducing travel time and expenses.

"This isn't about travel … it's about a group of people getting together saying, 'We don't want Indigenous players or teams in our league anymore,'" he told Justice Rempel. 

Members of the Peguis Juniors practise at the Peguis Multiplex. (Cameron MacIntosh/CBC)

"I can't say they're racist, because I've never met them. But if it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, then it's a duck."

Kagan went on to argue that having southern teams play in the northern First Nations "broke down barriers" between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, by giving players, and their friends and families, opportunities to see what the First Nations communities are like.

"Why would we stop that, when we need it so desperately in our communities?" he said.

After the proceedings, Peguis First Nation Chief Glenn Hudson compared the creation of the new league to segregation. 

"It's blatant racism," he said. "And that shouldn't happen in Canada. We're not Georgia here."

The communities filed a statement of claim with Court of Queen's Bench on Oct. 31.

In addition to the injunction halting the Capital Region Junior Hockey League's season, the First Nations are seeking damages for alleged breaches of contracts with players.

Rempel said he would deliver his decision on the injunction on Friday at 2 p.m.

With files from Cameron MacIntosh and Austin Grabish