'We can surely speak up': Ochapowace, Theodore fans call out racist poster at hockey game

Joni McKay says she can’t get an image out of her head — one she feels was offensive to a visiting Indigenous hockey team. But she and another woman present at the March 6 game in Theodore, Sask., didn’t sit back quietly. Instead, they confronted the racism head-on.

Man who drew offensive Indigenous caricature says he was frustrated by aggressive behaviour, has apologized

Joni McKay, who lives at Kahkewistahaw First Nation, says she confronted someone who was holding a poster with a caricature of an Indigenous person at a recent hockey game. She says it wasn't the first time she's encountered racism at a sporting event, and it won't be the last. (PhotoStock10/Shutterstock)

Joni McKay says she can't get an image out of her head — one she feels was offensive to a visiting Indigenous hockey team.

But she and another woman present at the March 6 game in Theodore, Sask., didn't sit back quietly. Instead, they confronted the racism head-on.

"You can't change people that are already thinking that way, but all I can do is maybe help the younger generation, the babies that are growing up," McKay said.

On Wednesday night, she was at the Theodore, Sask., hockey arena,  where her husband was coaching the Ochapowace Thunder, a senior hockey team from Ochapowace First Nation, in Game 3 of a Triangle Hockey League playoff series against the Theodore Buffalos.

After the Buffalos scored a goal, a fan turned his sign around to face her, showing a caricature of an Indigenous person.

Joni McKay said the fan left the drawing behind when he left. She picked it up following the game. (Submitted by Joni McKay)

"I approached him and I said, 'Do you think this is funny?'" she recalled.

The man responded by saying to McKay, who is not Indigenous, "Yes it's funny, and it looks like you, doesn't it?"

"You disgust me," McKay said she told the man, while a Theodore fan also stood up.

"She went and confronted him, and said, 'Put this down,'" McKay recalled.

She said she was glad to have someone stand up beside her to confront the man.

"It's Game 3, we lost 13-3. We're done hockey for the year, right? And then to get that thrown in our face too, it was just terrible."

They're heartbroken over over how that could happen.- Joni McKay on response from Theodore, Sask.

She said she feels for the players from Ochapowace, who she said deal with racism. She's heard them called "savages" at past hockey events.

The incident comes just a little more than a week that a black player in a Quebec hockey league raised a flag over the fact his family had to leave the arena after racist taunts.

"It breaks my heart because I see it wherever we go, except for our beautiful facility on Ochapowace First Nation. You don't see that belligerent attitude because we welcome people with open arms," she said.

Representatives from Theodore called her husband after the game and apologized for the incident.

A representative from the Theodore and District Recreation Board also confirmed that an apology was made, saying such an event had never happened at the rink before.

"They're heartbroken over how that could happen," McKay said.

Man says caricature driven by frustration

The 76-year-old man behind the sign, Tony Zahaik, also reached out to CBC to explain why he drew the cartoon. He said he was fed up with consistently aggressive behaviour he believes he sees from the other team, leading to broken fingers and concussions. 

"I can't stand these young kids getting hurt," he said, explaining he's coached and played hockey his whole life, but got frustrated with what he saw as dirty plays.

However, he said his wife suggested he apologize, which he said he has done.

"I shouldn't have did it, but I did," he said. "I apologized. I did wrong." 

Both McKay and Zahaik admit they don't see an end to flare-ups at future games, but McKay said she's going to continue speaking out against racism. 

"We can't change it, but we can surely speak up for ourselves."

About the Author

Janani Whitfield

Janani Whitfield spent 10 years working in the newspaper industry in Alberta before joining CBC Saskatchewan as a web writer in 2017. Contact her at janani.whitfield@cbc.ca on on Twitter, @WhitfieldJanani.