Nova Scotia·Q&A

'Visibility is everything': Task force leader talks diversity in N.S. hockey

The head of a task force that examined diversity and inclusion within Hockey Nova Scotia said he hopes the group's work encourages young players from diverse communities to pick up a hockey stick.

Hockey Nova Scotia released report on how to make the game more inclusive

Dean Smith, chairperson of Hockey Nova Scotia's diversity and inclusion task force, says the group heard from 840 Nova Scotians as part of their work. (CBC)

The head of a task force that examined diversity and inclusion in Hockey Nova Scotia said he hopes the group's work encourages young players from diverse communities to pick up a hockey stick.

The task force recently completed its report, making a number of recommendations to Hockey Nova Scotia's board of directors on how to make the game more inclusive.

The team was set up in December 2019, after a teenager from the We'koqma'k First Nation in Cape Breton complained he was the victim of racial taunts at a game in Chéticamp, N.S.

Dean Smith, chairperson of Hockey Nova Scotia's diversity and inclusion task force, spoke to the CBC's Amy Smith about the group's work and what it means for hockey in Nova Scotia.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your group talked to more than 800 Nova Scotians. Can you tell me a bit about what you heard?

The task force decided to launch an innovative provincewide survey. We thought hearing personal experiences was important in the work that we were about to undertake. We heard so much and were so appreciative of those who shared their personal stories. We heard that some of the greatest impediments to enjoying and participating in this game, the No. 1 impediment was cost, the No. 2 impediment was scheduling, and the No. 3 impediment, which was very important to us, was a sense of belonging.

What can the task force recommend to happen next to change some of that?

We made a series of nine recommendations specifically directed toward the Hockey Nova Scotia board of directors. We believe that these are nine pertinent recommendations that we heard directly from Nova Scotians on how to improve the game and how to make it more diverse and welcoming. One in particular was the development of a code of conduct that really enforces zero tolerance but keeping in mind that we're dealing with adolescent minds that are still developing, so there is room to make mistakes. That's why we tried to incorporate a restorative model in dealing with those infractions as well as an educational piece. We heard from parents that they didn't care how many games the other player was suspended for, they just wanted to know that the player learned from this mistake. Another recommendation was for training. We heard from minor hockey associations from across the province, as well as parents, that diversity and inclusion training is very important and education is very important in changing this incident of racism and discrimination in the game.

What are some of the incidents that led to the creation of the task force?

There were a number of incidents that were culminating in December 2019. There were international, national and local incidents. I can't speak directly to any local incident, but I know on a national level, Akim Aliu, a former player with the Calgary Flames, he experienced racist incidents during his career, and that was part of the motivation for Hockey Nova Scotia to act.

You have been a player and now a coach. What has been your personal experience?

I played some very minor hockey and school hockey when I was younger, but I experienced some racism and discrimination and I ended up leaving the game. It wouldn't be until years later that I became re-engaged. I participate as a lead instructor with the Black Youth Ice Hockey initiative. Part of that motivation is to ensure that kids who look like me, and other traditionally underrepresented kids, don't experience what I did in hockey. This is Canada's game and every child should have an opportunity to play and feel safe in the arena as they play.

On Monday night, the Tampa Bay Lightning started three Black forwards in their regular season finale. What does that moment say to young players as they get into the game?

That says a great deal to young players who can identify with those players. What we've been saying, and hopefully what we've communicated through this report, is representation and visibility is everything. I know I've inspired a number of young players to follow the coaching track because they've seen me in a coaching role. I know having four or five persons of colour in a dressing room changes the dynamic, changes the culture and supports those players, and I think that's the direction we're headed.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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