North·Racism in Hockey

Indigenous players subjected to racist taunts, discriminatory calls, say parents

In a four-part series, CBC News is looking at racism in hockey reported by Indigenous players. It comes a year after a First Nations team was subjected to racist slurs and taunts at a tournament in Quebec.

Parents say Hockey Québec needs to do more; organization says it's committed to creating safe space

The First Nation Elites 'Fight Racism' team at a Montreal-area tournament in May. Indigenous hockey players and parents in Quebec say they're too often facing discrimination on the ice. (Susan Bell/CBC)

This article is the first 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.

After years of playing — and loving — competitive hockey, Roy Neacappo's sons Derek and George gave up and, one after the other, switched to football.

It was striking, the difference in how welcomed and supported they felt as talented Indigenous athletes.

"My son said it felt like he was more accepted playing football," said Neacappo, who lives in Chisasibi, Que.

"[In hockey] it was always an uphill battle," said Neacappo, who used to help coach his sons' hockey teams when they were young.

Eventually the boys began playing federated hockey with the midget AA teams with the Cree Nation Bears. 

From left, Derek and George Neacappo switched from hockey to football and found they were better accepted. They helped their football team, the Ottawa Sooners, win the Ontario Junior Football Conference Championship trophy. (Submitted by Roy Neacappo)

"Penalties were being called on them for no reason and they just felt it wasn't fair. You just see them being really frustrated. It took the fun out of the game."

After playing Midget AA, Neacappo's youngest son George tried out for the Ligue de Hockey Junior AAA du Québec.  His older brother had already switched sports and had won a place on a junior football team in Ottawa, despite never having played the game.

[Hockey] was always an uphill battle- Roy Neacappo, parent

When his brother tried out for football, George was stunned to learn the team looked only at his athletic abilities and not the colour of his skin, a contrast to his experience in hockey.

"[George] asked me, 'They didn't look at who he was?'" said Neacappo.

Not just Quebec 

Discrimination in the sport is top of mind for many in Quebec and beyond. The issue came to a head a year ago when a young Bantam AAA First Nations team was subjected to racist taunts and slurs at a tournament in Quebec. Many say they've witnessed and experienced players and parents on opposing teams, as well as referees, discriminate against Indigenous players.

Hockey Québec, the governing body of regular season minor ice hockey in the province, says it's updating its code of ethics for referees, coaches and players to make the sport more welcoming for Indigenous players. It has also collaborated on a guide to help address bad behaviour by parents. 

Diane George is a hockey mom and the manager of the Whapmagoostui Predators, part of the James Bay Minor Hockey League. Her son Jamal plays against other teams from Cree communities, but she says he has also faced discrimination while playing in Ontario. (Susan Bell/CBC)

Diane George is a Cree hockey mom and the manager of the Whapmagoostui Predators team. Her son Jamal has mostly played hockey within the James Bay Minor Hockey League, meaning he's mostly played with other Cree youth.

All the same, discrimination in the sport is something she worries about and something Jamal has already faced.

"He got invited to a AAA tournament in Kingston, Ont., where the Native teams had to be escorted out of the arena," said George.

She said the kids were called racist names and their coach felt they were being threatened.

For Charles J. Hester, stories like this don't come as a surprise. He agrees that discrimination is still a part of hockey, but also thinks attitudes are getting better.

Hester is the director of culture, sports and leisure in Waskaganish, another Cree community located on James Bay. Each of his nine sons have played, or are still playing, competitive hockey.

"My boys have told me stories of being called 'dirty Indians' on the ice," said Hester.

Hockey dad and director of culture, sports and leisure in Waskaganish, Charles J. Hester, says Indigenous players also have a role to play in ending the stereotypes. (Jean-François Villeneuve/Radio-Canada)

He also recalled a time when his son and two other Waskaganish players were trying out for a AA team and the coach claimed they wouldn't be reliable. Hester said the coach said he needed to "get rid of these Cree boys because they are not going to show up."

Hester says a non-Indigenous coach defended his boys and all three made the team, adding First Nation players also have a role to play in ending the stereotypes.

He said he always taught his sons not to retaliate.

"It's all about discipline. If you don't taunt the refs, you won't get as many calls," said Hester.

Hockey Québec updating code of ethics

Hockey Québec says it's committed to creating a safe environment for all, including Indigenous players.

"It's very upsetting when I hear that a young person has left hockey, after all our efforts to make it the best sport," said Paul Ménard, the executive director of Hockey Québec.

Officials, administrators, coaches and players with the Hockey Québec federation must sign a code of ethics each season and are expected to adhere to it.

'Everything we do is with the goal of keeping players in the sport,' says Paul Ménard, executive director of Hockey Québec. (CBC)

The code of ethics listed on Hockey Québec's website does not currently include specific language about zero tolerance with regard to racism.

But that is something Ménard says will be remedied at its annual general assembly coming up June 7 near Montreal.

Ménard says a section will be added to the Hockey Québec code of ethics that will add more specific language regarding discrimination.

A draft of the document obtained by CBC News includes a new section that makes clear that each player must be "treated with equality and respect, regardless of age, sex, colour, race, citizenship, ethnic origin, language, religion, handicap or sexual orientation."

"Everything we do is with the goal of keeping players in the sport," said Ménard.

He said he can't comment on individual cases, but noted that "if a young person is not able to practise his sport in peace, of course it affects me."

It's very upsetting when I hear that a young person has left hockey.Paul Ménard,  Hockey Québec

The organization has also collaborated with Equijustice, a citizen restorative justice and mediation network, to publish a guide to help associations deal with parents' bad behaviour in arenas. The guide includes a list of "unacceptable behaviours" for parents, including psychological, verbal, sexual or physical violence, swearing, yelling, belittling and insulting.

However, nowhere in the guide's 46 pages is race or racism addressed. 

When asked if it was a missed opportunity to address the issue head on, Ménard said he felt the guide went far enough.

"In my opinion, 'unacceptable behaviour' includes racism. For me, I really don't need anything else," said Ménard. 

Youth line up to take in hockey action earlier this year at Job's Memorial Gardens in Chisasibi, Que. (Susan Bell/CBC)

Hockey Québec says it has the ability to investigate and sanction referees, as well as players, coaches and administrators, volunteers and parents. Penalties can range, according to Hockey Québec, from a verbal or written warning, right up to an expulsion from the game, tournament and in the worst case, from the hockey association.

Ménard says that power is also delegated to minor hockey associations in the regions, who "are the best people to handle problematic or conflictual situations."

"They are our eyes and ears," said Ménard.

Despite a request for information, Hockey Québec was not able to clarify whether a referee has ever been sanctioned by the organization.

'It should be about fun'

'[In hockey] it was always an uphill battle,' says Roy Neacappo. (Susan Bell/CBC)

Roy Neacappo, George and Derek's dad, says he's not confident that complaints in the future to Hockey Québec will lead to any real change.

Neacappo, who's also the recreation co-ordinator in his community of Chisasibi, says he still sees talented Indigenous hockey players coming back from federated tournaments frustrated by the penalties called against them.

"I've talked to Hockey Québec. I've talked to Abitibi Hockey. I've told them about all this. It seems like they can't do anything about it," said Neacappo.

"Hockey is a game. It should be about fun."

(With files from André Gariepy)

This series will also examine the story of an eight-year-old player and his teammates on an all-Indigenous team, who say they were subjected to racist taunts and aggression at a tournament last year. We'll also hear from the minister responsible and how Indigenous communities are moving forward.