It’s that time of year again. With the NHL playoffs underway, families across the Kivalliq have once again been divided by their allegiances to professional teams.
For the past few weeks, Facebook feeds in the region have been alive with banter, bets and insults. I can only imagine the lively situation inside the homes of those who are separated into Leafs and Habs’ camps, especially since this is the first time they have met in the playoffs since 1979.
Surprisingly though, it was fans of the red-hot second-seeded Edmonton Oilers who were the first to face the devastation of being eliminated with an embarrassing 4-0 sweep by the Winnipeg Jets. But the depth of those wounds pale in comparison to the attacks which the team’s up-and-coming defenceman Ethan Bear experienced following the Oilers’ early exit.
Bear, who is from Saskatchewan’s Ochapowace First Nation, was the target of vile racist comments following the team’s final loss after he made a mistake on one of Winnipeg’s goals.
Aside from the occasional smashed TV screen in the heat of the moment, most of us realize that professional hockey is just a game, and all the jesting and jeering is all in fun, or it should be.
The fact that such an ugly incident occurred shows once again that Canada and its national game have a glaring racism problem.
This is nothing new. Anyone who knows Jordin Tootoo, or has followed his career, knows just how much hate is directed at Indigenous players, both by their peers and fans.
It would be one thing if these were isolated incidents but that’s not the case. Ask any Nunavummiuq who has gone down south to play hockey against predominately white kids in small towns and they will tell you how ugly it can get.
What is truly upsetting is that any time an incident like this happens, the onus for denouncing this racism falls to Indigenous, Inuit and Metis people.
Look no further than Naujaat, where Grade 11 student Heather Putulik organized a march to honour Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman and Girls last week.
Putulik’s initiative is just another sign that young Indigenous people are fed up with being subjected to physical and lateral violence.
It’s a sign of bravery that young people who have been touched by racism are willing to speak up, but why are those in positions of power such cowards in comparison?
It was shocking, but not surprising, to see how few active players came to the aid of Bear following the attacks against him.
Other than the team’s former captain Andrew Ference, and its current one Connor McDavid, there were almost no personal statements denouncing the league’s racist fans.
Meanwhile, media outlets reached out to Indigenous players to comment in Bears’ defence rather than asking hard questions of the league’s predominately white players.
Why was no one asking Winnipeg players about the incident? Where were the Maple Leafs, the Canadiens? Anyone who is not a person of colour?
What’s so embarrassing about the lack of support for Bear is that hockey is a game which prides itself so much on an unwritten code based on honour. In theory, the code is about sticking up for your teammates, especially when someone takes a cheap shot at them.
While Tootoo remains the only Nunavummiut player to ever make it to the NHL, there’s a new batch of young Inuit players knocking on the door.
That includes Brayden Uluqsi, who was recently signed by the Bradford Rattlers to play Junior A hockey in Ontario. Uluqsi said he looks up to Bear for paving the way for young Indigenous players like Tootoo did before him and Fred Sasakamoose long before that.
Uluqsi told Kivalliq News he has also encountered small amounts of racism in his time playing down south but that he tried to not let it get to him.
“It’s unfortunate and disgusting. There shouldn’t be any racism in hockey at all,” he said in response to the news about Bear, whom he admires.
It’s incredible to see such a young and talented Inuk speak with such poise and maturity on such a difficult issue.
Which begs the question: if a 19-year-old with a bright future ahead of him can speak up, why can’t a white man making millions of dollars to play the game think of anything worthwhile to say?