"The environment of the game was not safe if you were not white and straight and male. And if you were those things, thus being allowed acceptance into the fraternity, the culture of the game would teach you that women existed only to be objectified and that gay men were not worthy of respect."
Hockey is everything in Canada. It is more than just what we do and what we play, it is who we Canadians are. The rink is what brings communities together, a place where best friends are made, where youth connect with elders, where families connect with other families to plan cottage trips and where, for many, their children are raised. Hockey is where Canadian culture–the good, bad and ugly–happens.
As an immigrant I once loved ‘the best game on Earth’. Having come to Canada so young that I have no memories of my homeland, I was compelled to connect to my peers and the dominant culture around me. Hockey, it appeared to me at the time, was the perfect entryway.
I fell in love with the game instantly.
I was enraptured by the force of an Al MacInnis slapshot, Dominik Hasek’s improbable saves, Scott Stevens’ bone-jarring bodychecks, the toughness of Wendel Clark, the speed and skill of Pavel Bure, and the leadership of Mark Messier. The love was deep. That was until I discovered that hockey, and by extension, Canadian culture didn’t seem to have room in it for me in it. The closer I got to the game the more I felt its intolerance, the more I was witness to its problematic culture.
Hockey, like Canadian culture in my view, is discriminatory and exclusionary, despite the image and narrative each institution prefers to promote about itself. This is why I was not surprised to hear that Hockey Canada had for many decades been enabling a an environment culture of toxic masculinity, misogyny and homophobia, and was directly involved in covering up incidents of child and sexual abuse. This is how I had experienced hockey culture. This is how other Canadians should have probably experienced hockey culture, too – if we as Canadians weren’t so well-practiced at turning away from what we should and need to see about ourselves.
My lived experience with hockey started with Steven. We were in the same grade 3 class and once we discovered that we lived across the street from each other, we quickly became best friends. Little did I know that my friendship with Steven is where my love affair with hockey would begin to unravel.
Steven played hockey and came from the kind of white Canadian family that, every winter, flooded their backyard to create a makeshift rink so that skating and ice time were never far away. Through Steven, I engaged with hockey in a way I hadn’t before–I started playing.
I didn’t have much in the way of equipment, so Steven offered to let me use his goalie equipment to play. I obliged. He taught me some basics and I figured out the rest. I was a natural. Soon, I gained local celebrity for being the best road hockey goalie in the neighbourhood. I reveled in it. Naturally, I wanted to get closer to the game, which I was able to do through Steven since he not only played road hockey, but ice hockey. I started spending more and more time with Steven and his family.
I started tagging along to Steven’s house league games on Saturday mornings. At first, it was all very exciting but soon I came to dread heading to the rink. I never felt accepted by or included in Steven’s family or the environment. Moreover, I was witness to the kind of parental involvement that looked less like support and more like abuse. I saw the way female players were made fun of and ignored by teammates and coaches on and off the ice. I was witness to smaller, weaker and more sensitive boys being negatively compared to girls or being called gay slurs. If this was hockey culture, I wanted no part of it.
I hung up my skates before I ever even put them on.
"For decades, Canadians ignored the undertones of racial bias, homophobia and misogyny. Instead, we engaged in a reverence of Don Cherry that is emblematic of the great Canadian problem as it pertains to social justice, and indeed, truth and reconciliation."
In the years since, I have met a slew of non-white Canadians who played hockey growing up, and loved playing, but left the game due to the discrimination and slurs they faced on the ice, in locker rooms and on team busses, from children and adults alike. I have also met several mothers who refused to let their sons play hockey because they did not want their sons to be swept into the vortex of misogyny and homophobia that permeates hockey culture. The environment of the game was not safe if you were not white and straight and male. And if you were those things, thus being allowed acceptance into the fraternity, the culture of the game would teach you that women existed only to be objectified and that gay men were not worthy of respect.
Yet, it’s not hard to find Canadians who say that hockey, a game that is deeply knotted into Canadian culture, is for everybody.
This, of course, is a lie.
In recent times, we have learned that Hockey Canada has been complicit in covering up incidents of child and sexual abuse. To support these cover-ups, two separate funds were created–the National Equity Fund and the Participants Legacy Fund – that functioned, at least in part, to quietly pay out settlements against allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct. We have also learned in a recently released report that over 900 incidents of documented or alleged on-ice discrimination occurred during the 2021-2022 season, across all levels and age groups. These revelations have come as a shock to many Canadians, prompting so many to ask, “what’s wrong with hockey?” As it turns out, the answer is, “there’s a lot that’s wrong with hockey.” And we should have known. The sport has been telling us.
Enter Don Cherry.
Don Cherry, former NHL player and head coach – impressive achievements on their own–is best known as former television co-host of Hockey Night in Canada’s TV segment, Coach’s Corner, alongside Ron MacLean. When Don Cherry came on screen we all knew what to expect–loud suits and loud rants, impressions on the game often interspersed with personal opinions ranging from what he thought about hockey at large to the Canadian condition. The hockey talk was usually informative. The personal opinions were usually off-putting–at least, they should have been.
For decades, Don Cherry frequently flew into xenophobic rants aimed at European players, directed negative bias toward the character and play of non-white players, and used pejoratives normally reserved to disparage slur women and gay men to describe players who he felt were soft. These rants, bursting with intolerance, eschewed at length and at random, are paradoxically what made Don Cherry so endearing to so many Canadians. For decades, Canadians laughed along. It was just Don being Don, telling it like it is. For decades, Canadians ignored the undertones of racial bias, homophobia and misogyny. Instead, we engaged in a reverence of Don Cherry that is emblematic of the great Canadian problem as it pertains to social justice, and indeed, truth and reconciliation. That is, in Canada we are so motivated to uphold our reputation as the USA’s nice, polite, welcoming sibling to the north that we systematically, in the literal sense of the word, ignore any sign or evidence of our human rights injustices.
But this is what Canada does and has always done. Ignore, enable, obfuscate, pretend.
"In Canada, we don’t talk about anything that might bring about national and global shame, including our most egregious example of social injustice – our systematic genocide and mistreatment of Indigenous peoples, which continues to this day. This silence is part of our culture."
We are the seemingly perfect white picket fenced neighbours who will invite you to their backyard barbecue but never inside their actual home, lest you discover the hallway closet whose hinges are about to burst from the pressure of the skeletons stuffed inside. And when it comes to skeletons, we have a whole history full of them.
Here are just a few:
Canada was a small but very willing participant in the American slave trade, in which thousands of Indigenous folks and people of African descent were enslaved.
Chinese railway workers, who made up about two thirds of the construction force that built the Canadian Pacific Railway connecting western Canada to the Maritimes, were paid less than their white counterparts, forced to live in harsh inhumane conditions and were given the most dangerous jobs, including the transport of very volatile nitroglycerin used to blow through solid rock. Hundreds of Chinese railway workers died as a result of their poor living conditions, malnutrition and construction accidents.
From 1942 to 1949, Canada forcibly displaced approximately 22,000 Japanese-Canadians–about 14,000 of them Canadian-born– from their homes, placing them in internment camps, where men were separated from their families in order to provide labour in the Canadian interior.
Canada’s immigration policy for most of Canada’s history has been discriminatory based on ability, religion, nationality and race. Some of the groups barred or restricted from entry into Canada at one time or another are: religious groups such as Dukhobors, Hutterites and Mennonites, non-Anglosaxon Europeans such as Italians and Greeks, Chinese and other East and Southeast Asians, Jewish refugees during World War II, South Asians and Africans. From 1910 to 1962, it was written into Canadian law that immigrants could be restricted or refused entry on the basis of race.
These are some but not all of our skeletons, that Canadian history would prefer not to teach, rather only half-mention or ignore completely. So, if any of these facts are new to you, dear reader, please find solace in knowing that you are likely not alone. In Canada, we don’t talk about anything that might bring about national and global shame, including our most egregious example of social injustice–our systematic genocide and mistreatment of Indigenous peoples, which continues to this day. This silence is part of our culture. As one example, it is not yet mandatory in this country to include the history of residential schools in every school curriculum across Canada. This must be why, in a 2017 poll by Insights West, 47 percent of Canadians surveyed did not recall learning about residential schools as part of their kindergarten to grade 12 education. Optimistically, though, that number fell to 21 percent for millennials surveyed. Still, we have to do better at facing our ugliest truths, so we can heal, repair what needs to be repaired, and actually become the country of inclusion we purport to be.
So, while many Canadians have rightfully denounced the toxic culture and harmful abuses of Hockey Canada, we should avoid the temptation of judgment. Rather than asking, “how could they…?” we should be asking ourselves, “how could we…?”
How could we remain complicit in not addressing human rights abuses, in hockey and in Canada, by adhering to a culture of silence and self-avoidance? How can we continue to tell ourselves that we live in a country free of serious human rights abuses when there is so much evidence and history to the contrary?
We Canadians have been hiding from the worst parts of who we are for so long that upon being faced with our own reflection we are appalled by the face staring back at us. We should never have been surprised to find out that Hockey Canada had been hiding such shameful skeletons of social impropriety for so long because we as a country have been engaged in the same exercise. So, rather than cast judgment upon Hockey Canada for their failures to protect others–the judgment functioning as an attempt at moral distancing which only continues to feed into our dishonesty–we must instead do what we have always needed to do. We must look deeply into the mirror, to see the exceptional beauty of who we are, but also our deep imperfections, so we can acknowledge the truth of this matter.
Hockey Canada’s problem is a Canadian problem, and their skeletons are our own.