Nova Scotia

For sports groups, much has been learned from racist incident at P.E.I. hockey game

The big takeaway for many Nova Scotia sports groups from a racist incident at a hockey game this fall is that continuing education on equity, diversity and inclusion must become commonplace in sport — especially when young players are involved.

'It's our position that chirping has no place in the game,' says Hockey Nova Scotia's Dean Smith

Sport Nova Scotia says more organizations are coming forward to ask for help to make their groups more inclusive. (Shutterstock)

Sports organizations in Nova Scotia have been paying close attention to the lengthy suspensions handed out last week for the racist taunts aimed at a Black goalie from Halifax at a hockey tournament in P.E.I.

The big takeaway for many of those groups is that continuing education on equity, diversity and inclusion must become commonplace in sport — especially when young players are involved.

"We have to recognize that we're dealing for the most part with pre-adolescent and adolescent boys and girls engaged in this sport. They will make mistakes," said Dean Smith, chair of the diversity and inclusion task force with Hockey Nova Scotia.

"But we also have to recognize that racism and discrimination is a learned behaviour. And education and training is important to address those deficiencies."

Mark Connors, who plays for the Halifax Hawks, was subjected to racist slurs at a tournament in Charlottetown in November. A Hockey P.E.I. disciplinary committee last week suspended the five minor hockey players involved for 25 games. Some of those players are now appealing the decision.

Mark Connors said last week that the way the racist comments affected him will be with him for the rest of his life. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

Smith said sports like hockey are often run by volunteers, and it's unfair to assume they are coming to the game equipped with equity, diversity and anti-Black racism training.

"It's our job as Hockey Nova Scotia to present those tools to volunteers so that they can address racism and discrimination in the game and rid it from the sport itself," he said.

"I think it's important to also emphasize that the way to address racism and discrimination in the game is to increase representation from underrepresented communities in the game."

But it wasn't just people in the hockey world watching the Connors incident.

"Golf is a sport, hockey is a sport. When these unfortunate things happen in other sports, it's our job as a provincial sport organization to learn from these things and come away with better knowledge of how to move forward," said Jason Lohnes, executive director for the Nova Scotia Golf Association.

Within the last year, the golf association created an equity, diversity and inclusion committee.

"There's no secret that there are social and economic barriers to the sport of golf. Our committee's focus is to reduce and in some cases eliminate those barriers."

Dean Smith is the chair of the diversity and inclusion task force with Hockey Nova Scotia. The task force was struck in late 2019 to study the issue of racism and discrimination in the game. (CBC)

Lohnes said they hope to be able to provide examples and opportunities to golf clubs in the province, especially around hiring within diverse communities.

"We feel that if we can do some work behind the scenes, off the course if you will, that that can translate into positive things on the golf course."

Mark Smith, director of sport with Sport Nova Scotia, said more groups are turning to his organization for advice on how to be more inclusive — something he said is encouraging.

In December, Sport Nova Scotia launched a funding program specifically for sports groups that want to be more inclusive and diversify their membership.

"In the case of Mark Connors, it's around hockey and it's around colour. But we know that EDI runs much deeper and much broader than colour."

The Nova Scotia Gold Association has created a 'robust committee' to look at equity, diversity and inclusion, according to the executive director. (The Canadian Press)

Dean Smith said it's only recently that sports groups are seeing "a more realistic reporting of incidents" of racism, as the Black Lives Matter movement has brought many of these issues to the forefront.

"I know in my day playing hockey these incidents would never make it to the boardroom table, but now they are, and now they are hopefully being addressed by associations across this province."

'Chirping' and trash talk in sport

In the subsequent report done by Hockey P.E.I., the players who were ultimately suspended admitted to "chirping" Connors in order to agitate him.

Mark Smith said there is an element of "trash talk" that goes with competitive sport, one he believes will probably never leave sports altogether.

"There's a right way and a wrong way to do it. When we cross lines around making ethnic slurs and speaking to people about things they have no control over, it's inappropriate," he said.

Mark Smith with Sport Nova Scotia said organizations are now realizing they are devoid of policies with respect to providing inclusive environments. (CBC)

But Dean Smith said the work of Hockey Nova Scotia's inclusion task force "found no empirical evidence to suggest that chirping creates any specific sporting advantage for one team over another."

"It's our position that chirping has no place in the game," he said.

"We know that chirping leads to further chirping, which leads to frustrations on the ice and those frustrations lead to incidents like racism and discrimination. So we see a direct connection in the line from chirping to incidents like that which happened to Mark Connors."

A coach from Hockey Nova Scotia gives a pre-practice pep talk in 2018 at a program that encourages children who are recent immigrants to give hockey a try. (Frances Willick/CBC)

The diversity task force issued its recommendations to Hockey Nova Scotia's board of directors last April.

Smith said they are currently working on a member code of conduct they hope will be available by early spring as a trial run. It will then be applied to boards, member associations, coaches and officials for the start of the 2022/2023 season.

But the ultimate goal is to have those in positions of leadership, as well as players themselves, doing the learning modules at the start of each hockey season to keep the issues on the front burner, Smith said.

"We want to put the skills and the tools in the hands of those who interact with young people and adolescents in sport, to be able to address these incidents of racism and discrimination head-on."

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.