Tackling racism in hockey starts with education on the ice, coaches say
Players, parents and coaches in Quebec consider how to make the game more inclusive following racist incident
As he watched a high-school hockey tournament underway at the Kahnawake Sports Complex, Peter Thomas recalled his time as the owner of the Kahnawake Condors, a Junior AAA hockey team.
"A lot of 'savage,' a lot of 'dirty Indian,'" Thomas said of the insults often hurled at his players, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike.
"It would only take one or two people to start and then the crowd would sort of join in."
Earlier this month, a black semi-pro hockey player — Jonathan Diaby — and his family were called the N-word and compared to baboons during a game in Saint-Jérôme, Que.
The incident drew widespread condemnation, including from the premier. But it also brought greater scrutiny to the recurring displays of racism in hockey arenas across the province.
Thomas, who sold the Condors in 2015, said he was discouraged by what happened to Diaby. The scene, though, was familiar to him.
Even though most of his players were not Indigenous, the team's name and the Indigenous design on their jerseys meant they were not immune to racist taunting.
"I used each and every insult as a learning experience for my players, their families and friends," Thomas said.
Over at Père-Marquette Arena in Montreal, teams from Hockey Mineur Rosemont Petite-Patrie take to the ice to practice.
The borough has large concentrations of North African immigrants; close to 20 per cent of its population identifies as a visible minority.
Its minor hockey association has developed a zero-tolerance racism policy in an effort to protect its players, who range in age from five to 21.
"We don't stand for it," said association president Angelo Loffredi. "There's no place for it in our sport in 2019."
While the association itself can't eject spectators, or even parents, Loffredi goes directly to arena security for help.
The association, he said, hasn't had any explicit racist incidents. But its hardline approach applies even to parents who are simply yelling or being rude.
"We try to act on it and settle it as soon as it happens," he said.
At the Atom level — for children aged between eight and nine years old — coaches start talking to their players about what to do about possible negative remarks.
"Hockey is for everybody," Loffredi said. "We try to do as much as we can to promote that in our league."
Tackle racism with 'education and compassion'
Most people who get heated at games and start chirping at players with racist remarks don't realize the pain they are causing, Thomas said.
So how do you tackle that?
"Education and compassion. [As owners], we tried to fix that by bringing everybody here together and showing them what we are about," he said.
"Maybe they came here with racial tensions in mind, but they left with an open mind."
For Marie Louis Cuisine, whose nine-year-old son Axel just started playing hockey, it's also important not normalize what happened to Diaby in Saint-Jérôme.
"I heard [Diaby] saying that it's normal for him to be on the receiving end of racial taunts. But it's not normal," she said, as she watched her son practice at the Georges-Mantha Arena, in Montreal's Saint-Henri neighbourhood.
"It needs to stop and [Diaby] needs to feel comfortable playing hockey, no matter the colour of his skin."
Cuisine said her son's black skin may, one day, make him a target of racism as well. But for the moment, she wants to let him enjoy learning the game.
"For now, we don't think it's necessary to talk to him about it because he doesn't see it as an issue," she said. "But if he brings it up, of course, we will tackle the subject."