How Indigenous players and coaches are forging ahead in a positive way
A weekend cultural exchange was born out of past animosities
This article is the fourth and final story in a four-part series called Racism in Hockey, which is looking at allegations of discrimination in the sport. It follows CBC's coverage last year of the First Nation Elites, an Indigenous hockey team that faced racism at a tournament in Quebec.
It was an exchange Ashley Iserhoff remembers well.
It was 2016, and the Cree Nation Bears, an all-Indigenous hockey team from the James Bay region of Quebec, was hosting the La Sarre Lions, a non-Indigenous rival in the tiny coastal Cree community of Eastmain, population 900.
It wasn't the first time an outside team from the Hyundai Hockey League had played in a Cree community — but it was the first time the young players took time off the ice to get to know one another.
There were cultural activities, time spent on the land, and a traditional feast.
One time we had to be escorted out by the police.- Ashley Iserhoff
"I remember a lot of the players from the Lions tried Cree food for the first time, whether it was moose, goose or even beaver," said Iserhoff, who is a former president of the Cree Nation Bears Hockey Club.
It was a weekend the kids will probably never forget. But the story of how it came about is quite a bit less inspiring, according to Iserhoff.
"I remember one time we had to be escorted out by the police because the emotions were pretty high. I remember some of the players being called 'kawish' or 'savage,' either in English or French," said Iserhoff. Kawish is an insult used against Indigenous people in some parts of Quebec.
Iserhoff said it's hard to express how hurtful the words were to his young players.
"I remember a lot of the kids on our team would be very emotional when those exchanges happened. They cried because they had never really heard that language."
Appreciated by non-Indigenous players
Since a viral incident with the First Nation Elites — a team of Indigenous hockey players who were subjected to racist taunts and slurs last year at a Quebec tournament — many players, parents and coaches have spoken out about racism in the sport. They say discrimination is an all too common experience in arenas, whether it be from the opposing players, their parents, or referees. Many are looking for ways forward.
The Cree Nation Bears are the ones who initiated the exchange in the spirit of improving relations and breaking down stereotypes.
"Just that exchange alone I think changed a lot of things," said Iserhoff. "It was very helpful in terms of educating each other, as well as understanding each other in ways that we thought we'd never be able to."
Cécile Poirier, the director of sport, recreation and community life for the town of La Sarre, said she didn't get to attend the weekend in Eastmain back in 2016, but she still hears about it from people who did.
"One of the [La Sarre] mothers said 'for my son it's one of his best memories, because we didn't see any rivalry. The young people were all mixed together," said Poirier, adding she thinks this is the way forward.
"I think we need to do that more and more in the future," said Poirier. "They all want to play hockey; they all have the same goal and we have to make space for them."
Both Poirier and Iserhoff say relations between those two teams have been better ever since.
First Nations players 'integral'
Another way relations are improving between Indigenous and non-Indigenous players in the Hyundai Hockey League is because more and more First Nations players are in the Abitibi league.
Christian Beaulé is the president of Hockey Abitibi-Témiscamingue, which oversees play within the league. He says 35 to 40 per cent of the league's players are coming from First Nation communities in the area.
According to Beaulé, it's meant the teams, arenas and associations have had to figure out how to work and play together, however imperfectly.
They all want to play hockey; they all have the same goal. - Cécile Poirier, town of La Sarre
"I think we are on the right road. More and more we have mixed teams," said Beaulé.
He thinks a large part of the problem with racism in hockey is in leagues where there aren't as many Indigenous players or teams.
"They are an integral part of our region and they are part of our teams."
Working with Indigenous players, coaches
Things have come a long way from where they were 10 years ago, says Patrice Dominique, a long-time Cree Nation Bears coach who started with the Bantam BB team.
Dominique, who's from the Lac Saint-Jean Innu community of Mashteuiatsh, says in his first years with the team they faced a lot of routine racism.
"First five years were hard," said Dominique. "We had a lot of difficulty when we went to go play outside the Cree territory. I can say we faced a lot of racism."
Dominique says he got tired of always confronting the other teams' players, coaches and parents. Instead, about five years ago, he started concentrating on working with his players.
"I taught my boys to not be too emotional. I told them that they were going to face the racism and they need to focus on the ice and just have fun," said Dominique.
He said he also made a conscious effort to work with opposing coaches. He would explain to the parents and the coaches how the racist words and comments were affecting his players.
"I can say that worked, and we had more respect with other teams," he said.
Dominique says in all of his 10 years with the Cree Nation Bears, he has never filed a complaint with Hockey Québec, for any of the worst behaviour his team faced.
"Why not? I don't think that's going to change things. [Racism is] there whether it's in sport or in something else," said Dominique.
He said, in the end, it was a human connection in the arenas, with the players, the parents, the coaches and referees that gave his players a safer place to skate.
- Read Part 1: Indigenous players subjected to racist taunts, discriminatory calls, say parents
- Read part 2: No repercussions after Indigenous children called 'savages' at hockey tournament, parents say
- Read part 3: Quebec sporting groups must have plans to tackle bullying, racism by 2020: minister
The Cree Nation Bears organization announced this week that it is suspending its full program for the 2019-2020 season, because it has been unable to secure funding. A press release issued by the team, says it hopes to be able to return the following year.