NHL legend teaches P.E.I. students lessons on racism and inclusion

Students at Birchwood Intermediate School in Charlottetown got a virtual visit from an NHL legend, an Olympic hockey player and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday.

Willie O'Ree, Justin Trudeau, Sarah Nurse and Ron MacLean stopped in virtually

Willie O'Ree spoke to Birchwood students virtually Monday about some of the racism he faced in the National Hockey League. (Tony Davis/CBC)

Students at Birchwood Intermediate School in Charlottetown got a virtual visit from an NHL legend, an Olympic hockey player and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday.

It was all part of a virtual panel discussion with classrooms across Canada. The panel focused on social justice and racism and centred on Willie O'Ree, the first Black hockey player in the NHL.

"He's gone through so much and he has such a great story to tell," said Tayrn MacInnis, a Grade 8 student at Birchwood.

"The part about his great-grandfather coming to Canada from slavery is really standing out to me."

MacInnis said she plays hockey and her coaches encourage her to be kind to everyone and support her teammates. She said she was happy to hear O'Ree had some support from his team when dealing with racism.

Willie O’Ree was the first Black hockey player in the NHL. (Andrew Nguyen/CBC)

"I really thought that there would be more people that were not very nice to him, but he seemed like he grew up in an environment that was really kind and supportive."

O'Ree talked about some of the racism he faced in the league and was joined by professional hockey player and Olympic silver medallist Sarah Nurse who also discussed her experience.

"I think we should all treat everyone equally and he really put that message forward," said Grade 8 student Petra Klimes.

She said she hasn't witnessed any acts of racism on her hockey team and hopes it doesn't happen on other P.E.I. teams.

Having teammates and friends you know will speak up when they see acts of racism is key, Klimes said.

Birchwood students Lilly MacVicar, left, Tayrn MacInnis and Petra Klimes all say learning about O'Ree makes them want to learn as much as they can about other BIPOC Canadians and the racism they face. (Tony Davis/CBC)

Lilly MacVicar was also in the classroom watching the presentation. She said she was inspired O'Ree never let racism stop him from playing hockey.

"He said that you have to work really hard to get to your goal. Even though, like a couple setbacks, I think he is a hard worker and that shows we should work hard too."

MacVicar and Klimes said learning about O'Ree made them want to learn everything they can about BIPOC Canadians and the racism they may be facing.

The panel, hosted by Ron MacLean, is part of a larger project by learning provider Classroom Champions, which has developed an educational guide focused on social justice and fighting racism — which is being made available to over 15,000 schools and youth sports organizations in North America.

'It's very important for kids to see themselves, you know, to be represented in things they love,' says Birchwood teacher Josh Beaton. (Tony Davis/CBC)

Josh Beaton is a teacher at Birchwood. His class was the only one on P.E.I. to be part of the panel discussion. He said they watched a documentary on O'Ree's career — and when a student brought the panel to his attention he jumped on it.

"In my class I have a mural of Willie O'Ree on my board," he said. "We have been learning about his life and the struggles he faced."

The plan is to teach his students more about O'Ree and other Black Canadians throughout Black History Month.

"It's very important for kids to see themselves, you know, to be represented in things they love," he said.

"And to see somebody come from a place so close to here in New Brunswick it just connects with them that much more."

Beaton said the school is trying to expand past Black History Month and engrain prominent Black figures in the school curriculum for the entire year.

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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