The NHL has designated February as "Hockey is for Everyone" month, but the racist attack on Jonathan-Ismael Diaby at a minor league hockey game in Quebec tells a different story. Diaby left a game in the Ligue Nord-Américaine de Hockey because of racist taunts and harassment, including fans showing him videos of primates, and harassing and grabbing his family.
The league apologized, minimizing the incident as a "tiny part" of the fan base, and then gave a lifetime ban to the fans that were involved, but only after the public outcry made further inaction impossible. Still, there has been little talk of the lack of action by the coaches, referees, security, and other fans at that game. Diaby was reportedly, and heartbreakingly, in tears and so upset he left the game early, saying, "This is not hockey. We have no business here. Let's go."
Unfortunately, it is hockey, even today.
Yet this part of the sport is often overlooked, partly because of the small numbers of black and Indigenous hockey players and partly because hockey is such an integral part of Canadian identity. In an interview with "Daybreak," former NHL player Georges Laraque, who is black, said he had to endure racial slurs when he was playing minor hockey, but added, "It actually looks like it's getting worse. This is actually the worse scenario that I've ever heard in hockey and I've lived through some stuff as a kid."
Watch: Documentary explores history of black hockey players. Blog continues below.
Other NHL players have also pointed to this kind of casual racism in hockey as fairly common at every level. Jordin Tootoo, the first Inuk player in the NHL, told CBC, "The first time I ever faced racism was when we went down south to play in a couple of native tournaments. The fans and the people away from the rink were calling us names." No child should have their first, or any, experience with racism on the ice, which happens far too often.
Over the past year, there have been multiple incidents of young black and Indigenous children being made targets of slurs and racist bullying at all levels of hockey and at all ages. Both a 12-year-old boy in Halifax, after six years of racist harassment, and a 14-year-old boy in Kamloops, were called the N-word. When a fan threw a banana at Wayne Simmonds in London and was fined $200, but Andrew Harris of the Winnipeg Bluebombers said on Twitter, "This Wayne Simmonds incident reminds me of bantam hockey provincials in Portage la Prairie (Man.). Never heard more racial slurs in my life."
Often, parents are just as guilty as their children, and it has an impact. Jacinta Bear, who manages the North End Hockey Program in Winnipeg, a program for Indigenous youth, told Macleans, "Our team has heard it all. ... Even opposing coaches and refs call our kids 'dirty little Indians.'" Racism against Indigenous players is pervasive, with a seven-year-old girl in Calgary even missing a whole season for refusing to wear a Calgary Northwest Warriors jersey that she felt was offensive.
We need more diversity in hockey, not just in terms of more players of colour, but also in the culture itself.
During the 2018 playoffs, some fans shouted the N-word at a Chicago Blackhawks game, and the only black player, Anthony Duclair, noted to the Chicago Sun-Tribune, "It's obviously a white sport, ... I'm sure there was a nonwhite kid interested in hockey who changed his mind after seeing that footage, saying, 'Nah, I'm good.'" And this racism even makes children stop wanting to play hockey at all.Jamison Ladd, a 13-year-old in B.C. who quit his hockey team this year said, "They make me feel like I don't belong in hockey."
Change should start from the top down, as hockey mom Sander Horner from Kamloops noted, "Coaches need training, officials need training. Every year I go to my son's coach and say, 'I don't know if you've ever coached a black player before, but this will happen.'" CBC even found in a 2014 report that registration in minor hockey is declining, and with the changing demographics in Canada, allowing this culture to continue will simply drive players away.
To address racism in hockey, leagues and officials need to acknowledge racism and punish it (the man who threw a banana at Wayne Simmonds in London was fined $200), with suspensions for players, and even teams, if necessary. We need more diversity in hockey, not just in terms of more players of colour, but also in the culture itself. Every hockey fan should feel safe at a game and we can do away with with old-school attitudes and discrimination towards black players like P.K. Subban and Evander Kane, who face hyper-criticism for everything from celebrating to off-ice behavior.
Hockey shouldn't be a white sport; it is already expensive and time-consuming, so we should be taking down barriers, not creating them. If hockey is truly Canada's game, let's celebrate it as a sport of skill, hard work, and sportsmanship, so that hockey really is for everyone.