Cleveland Indians' logo still under fire from Canadian activist

Despite objections, the Cleveland Indians have been allowed to keep their controversial logo. But a prominent Indigenous Canadian may be the one to finally force both the team and baseball's hand.

Architect and activist Douglas Cardinal wants baseball team to drop 'racist' symbol

Last fall an injunction was sought to prevent the Chief Wahoo logo from being displayed when Cleveland visited Toronto during the playoffs. The move was unsuccessful, but now the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal is considering the complaint. (Mark Duncan/Associated Press)

As Major League Baseball gears up for the season's second half, one of the game's most controversial symbols will remain. 

Chief Wahoo — the toothy caricature that has long appeared on the Cleveland Indians' uniforms and other team paraphernalia — will be allowed to stick around. At least for now.

"We have had ongoing dialogue with the Indians about the Chief Wahoo situation. I think it's safe to say you are not going to see any dramatic developments until we're through the 2017 season," MLB commissioner Rob Manfred told reporters this week.

In recent years, as many high school, collegiate and minor league teams have phased out references to Indigenous Peoples in their team names and logos, Cleveland and its Chief Wahoo symbol have come under increased scrutiny.

With the encouragement of MLB and many Indigenous activists, the team has moved to reduce the prominence and usage of the controversial logo. The hope, for many, is that it will eventually be phased out completely, but a final exit for Chief Wahoo has been met with resistance from both the team and many of its fans.

Now, a prominent Indigenous Canadian may be the one to finally force both the team and baseball's hand.

Indigenous activist Douglas Cardinal wants the Cleveland Indians to do away with what he calls a racist team name and logo. 'It's about time it ended,' he says. (Sandra Abma/CBC)

Douglas Cardinal, 83, is a renowned architect and a recipient of the Order of Canada. He is also a residential school survivor and a longtime Indigenous activist.

"For me, going to a baseball game and seeing that ugly, racist logo is entirely inappropriate," Cardinal says. "I think it belittles people."

'It's not a revolutionary change'

Cardinal's first salvo came last fall, when he sought an injunction aimed at preventing the Chief Wahoo logo from being displayed when Cleveland visited Toronto during the playoffs.

The case has been evolving ever since.

The last-minute injunction request, filed mere hours before the first pitch of the 2016 American League Championship Series, was ultimately rejected. But in his reasons, Justice Thomas McEwen agreed there was "serious issue to be tried as to whether the name and/or logo offend the provisions of the Ontario Human Rights Code."

Noting that the Cleveland Indians and Rogers Communications, which owns the Blue Jays and broadcasts their games, "essentially concede that these issues deserve to be discussed and debated in our society," McEwen wrote in his decision that "based on existing case law, and the evolving societal discussion, the issue is whether the name and logo run contrary to the OHRC is a serious issue to be tried."

Cardinal's application was ultimately rejected because McEwen questioned the timing and urgency of the injunction request.

"Mr. Cardinal says he cannot experience the ALCS without experiencing an affront to his dignity. I accept the truth of this statement. This has however been going on for years," McEwen wrote. "In my view there is no reason this application cannot have been brought long ago on a non-urgent basis."

McEwen noted that Cleveland had visited Toronto more than 200 times since 1977, when the Blue Jays joined the American League.

Cardinal and his lawyer, Paul-Erik Veel, then took the case to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, where it remains at the moment.

"I have a lot of support. Many First Nations folks have phoned me to say thank you for making an issue about this," Cardinal says. "People are realizing the days of glorifying the destruction of the Indigenous people is no longer a good thing."

Veel says his client isn't asking for much.

"We are asking that the name and logo not be used, which at the practical level doesn't mean that much change," Veel says. "We already know that Cleveland has a uniform that just [uses] the stylized C logo. So it's a matter of taking Chief Wahoo off the hats and off the arms and having that alternative uniform.

"That's easy. It's not a revolutionary change we are asking for."

'It's about time it ended'

Rogers, the Cleveland baseball team and Major League Baseball all made submissions challenging the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal's jurisdiction in this case.

Cardinal's lawyer wants Cleveland to use an alternative uniform without the current name and logo. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Arguments were also made regarding whether the tribunal could issue orders regarding a federally registered trademark. Cleveland has registered both the team's name and logo in Canada.

The tribunal denied all of these objections, instead ordering a full hearing, which is likely to happen later this year.

"We were hoping that case was going to be dismissed. It was not. I think it points out the ongoing practical problems that are posed by this particular logo," the baseball commissioner said.

Chief Wahoo's future in Canada, and possibly beyond, hinges on a central legal question: by putting on and broadcasting Cleveland Indians baseball games, are the team, Major League Baseball and Rogers providing a service that can be governed by the Ontario Human Rights Code?

"In my view, in the circumstances of this case, a full evidentiary record is necessary to determine whether baseball games taking place at the Rogers Centre are services within the meaning of the code," tribunal adjudicator Jo-Anne Pickel wrote. "Just as importantly, if they are services, a full evidentiary record is required to determine which of the respondents would be liable if I were to find discrimination in the provision of these services."

Major League Baseball, which declined to comment for this story, is seeking a judicial review of the tribunal's decision to allow the case to proceed.

"I am not surprised that MLB is well-resourced and would take positions in its best interest and its various clubs,'" Veel says. "The part that does surprise me is that we have seen public statements from MLB which are not perhaps the most supportive of the Chief Wahoo logo, and it's unfortunate there would be such aggressive litigation on those issues."

As for Cardinal, he just want change. Now.

"It's hard for both Americans and Canadians to get off the racism that they have perpetuated on the Native people for a long time," he says. "And it's about time it ended."


Jamie Strashin is a native Torontonian whose latest stop is the CBC Sports department. Before, he spent 15 years covering everything from city hall to courts and breaking news as a reporter for CBC News. He has also worked in Brandon, Man., and Calgary. Follow him on Twitter @StrashinCBC