First Nations hockey team turns racist incidents during Quebec tournament into positive action

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Members of a First Nations hockey team subjected to racist taunts at a recent tournament in Quebec City are feeling encouraged by the cross-Canada support they have received and hope the resulting attention will help root out racism in the sport.

The First Nation Elites Bantam AAA team is comprised of players aged 13 to 15 from numerous Cree, Atikamekw and Algonquin communities in Quebec, and other First Nations communities in Ontario and Nova Scotia. The offensive incidents occurred at the Coupe Challenge Québec AAA, which was held May 25-27.

Elites player Julien Marshall said he’s experienced racism in every game since the team started playing this spring, but the atmosphere in Quebec City was particularly heated.

The team felt they were being stared at from the moment of arrival. After the Elites won the first game, the opposing team’s players lined up on the blue line and made stereotypical “war cries” and tomahawk-chopping gestures.

Team manager Tommy H.J. Neeposh told the Nation that rather than condemn this type of behaviour, the referee just smiled at the players and said he had no control. Neeposh said his team was repeatedly frustrated by unfair refereeing, receiving penalty after penalty for what he calls clean hits while slashes and cross-checks by other teams were overlooked.

“We played against the refs, while the whole building targeted our players,” said Neeposh. Several parents and players confirm that the team was called “savages” by at least one coach and many spectators.

By the fifth game, when Neeposh was compelled to make a video to document the questionable refereeing, he caught some parents on tape yelling, in French, “gang de sauvages”.

“When I took the video I was all riled up and ready to get the old man, but I said to myself I’m going straight to the dressing room and talk to the boys because they don’t deserve this,” Neeposh recalls. “I told them, ‘I’m proud of how hard you fought all the way to the end. These guys are losers for what they said to us. Remember boys, even after this, you’re going to face this for the rest of your lives.’”

He also told the boys that he’d captured the events on video but only decided to release it publicly after the tournament organizers refused to apologize or accept accountability. Now that the video has gone viral, officials have issued a statement saying a “disciplinary committee is looking into the incident,” but Neeposh says that they have still not responded to him.

The events have caused both outrage and a wave of support from across the country. Geoffrey Kelley, Quebec’s Native Affairs Minister, said that the government “vehemently denounces these events.”

“Parents should know better not to promote or instill racism and hatred slurs in this day and age,” tweeted Abel Bosum, Grand Chief of the Cree Nation. “Governments need to legislate laws against this unacceptable behaviour.”

Likewise, former Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come tweeted: “Nothing has changed since my Pee Wee days playing in Quebec City hockey tournaments. Guess parents just passed on their racist remarks. Quebec doesn’t deserve an NHL team.”

While many sporting events now have bylaws enforcing zero tolerance for racism, the tournament in Quebec City was not under jurisdiction of Hockey Quebec, the province’s governing body for the sport. If it had been, Hockey Québec says it could investigate, educate and sanction players or coaches.

“Racism doesn’t need to happen in our sports,” Neeposh said. “Hockey is the main sport in Canada, all First Nations play hockey. Now that adults attack our boys, we’re trying to raise awareness here. We have to turn this into a positive. Now I’m getting full support from everybody around the whole country.”

Neeposh is proud of the restraint shown by his team, which he believes is one of the best ever assembled in the Cree Nation at this level. He began putting the team together in January, collecting players as they finished their regular seasons throughout the south. They didn’t even have time to practice together before the competitions started.

“Everyone jumped in,” exclaimed Neeposh. “These guys are going to leave the Cree Nation again to go play elite hockey competitions down south. If you want to compete at an elite level you have to move, the reserves only have ‘A’ category. If you want to improve your game you have to come down.”

Neeposh knows players who have quit hockey because of racism but hopes the response to his video inspires young people to persevere with their dreams.

“I’ve had so many emails from kids who say thank you for doing this. I want to tell these kids up north to stay positive. Keep fighting, there’s no way that we’re just going to quit like this. We’re going to come out stronger as a team.”

Neeposh even started a team GoFundMe account to receive donations after people were trying to give him money personally. He’s most excited about a surprise offer from Winnipeg Jets assistant coach Todd Woodcroft to lead a practice for the boys in Ottawa.

“It shows that we do have a lot of support,” Neeposh concluded. “This needs to get out to our kids, especially the ones who left the hockey world, to show that people do care.”

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