Canadian hockey culture is racist.
I get it. That sounds harsh. After all, Canada is perceived from beyond its borders as the beacon of progressive multiculturalism to the North. It is – and I speak from the experience of someone who lives in the U.S. South – in relative terms an almost impossibly utopian society, what with the healthcare, gun control, and lack of openly racist head of state.
Indeed, the country has gone so far as to enshrine its multicultural character in legislation. Section 15.(1) of the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states: “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.”
Six years later, the Canadian Multiculturalism Act of 1988 consolidated this legal framework, laying out in even more concrete terms the responsibilities of the government to promote multiculturalism, including the requirement that the state “encourage and promote exchanges and cooperation among the diverse communities of Canada” and “assist ethno-cultural minority communities to conduct activities with a view to overcoming any discriminatory barrier and, in particular, discrimination based on race or national or ethnic origin.”
So, why exactly am I calling Canada’s most precious cultural form racist?
I’m just telling it like it is, unfortunately. Let’s leave aside for a moment the fact that, in general, actual social relations in Canada hardly approximate the aspirational rhetoric of multicultural legislation. Just think, for instance, about the recent surge in alt-right activity, the fact that someone currently running for high political office just said she is worried marijuana will give Canadians the “work ethic” of Jamaicans, or the more basic reality that whiteness remains normative (non-white folks are, for instance, consistently asked, “where are you from?”), while non-whiteness is persistently coded as “ethnic,” including in the aisles of major retail stores.
No, let’s talk about hockey. In his exhaustive 2003 study of racism in the NHL, Cecil Harris found that “Each black player…has to wage a personal battle for acceptance and respect…. Facing abuse that is verbal, physical or psychological because of their color has been an unfortunate reality for almost all of them.” A much more recent study found that South Asian players in Canadian hockey are consistently subjected to racist treatment.
This racist culture extends from the highest to the lowest levels of the game in Canada. San Jose Shark Joel Ward, a Canadian, recently said: “I’ve experienced a lot of racism myself in hockey and on a day-to-day occurrence.” The father of star P.K. Subban and his brothers has also talked recently about his sons’ experiences with racism growing up in Canadian hockey.
At lower levels of the sport, it has been recently reported that a twelve year-old child playing in Nova Scotia is subjected to at least one racial slur per year, while a fourteen year old was faced with similar abuse in BC. Racism is also a part of the game for women, as the story of an indigenous national team member who grew up in Manitoba attests.
My research findings align with these ugly stories. Interviews I conducted with Canadian former professional hockey players for the collection Hockey: Challenging Canada’s Game – which I draw on below – and my new book Game Misconduct: Injury, Fandom, and the Business of Sport suggest that even as Canada has obtained an international reputation for equity, it’s most precious cultural institution has remained a bastion of whiteness.
Now, let’s be clear that I am not claiming every Canadian who plays or otherwise participates in hockey culture is racist. Nevertheless, the interviews I conducted do indicate that over the last thirty years, racism has flourished within the game in ways and to an extent that wouldn’t be possible without widespread complicity. It is for this reason that I suggest that the culture of Canadian hockey is racist, for it has fostered permissiveness towards blatant and at times violent forms of racist behavior.
For instance, in the recollections of one player who had a lengthy career as an enforcer in the NHL and AHL and identified as white, racist violence was a commonplace occurrence during his time in professional hockey in the 1980s and 1990s:
“You know, there’s some, you know, African-American guys who played where you heard the N-word a lot from the stands… Even on the ice, it was different back then, right? You had players that were prejudiced. They would, you know…I won’t mention his name, I played with a player that was prejudiced and there was, I think at the time, three Black guys in the league, and he fought them every game. Every game he went out and fought them.”
Likewise, a higher-profile player who played in the NHL well into the 2000’s, addressed a different form of racism, suggesting that he experienced abuse from fans as a result of his French-Canadian identity:
“I… personally felt that and I remember one of the first times I went to Toronto, you know, one fan that was close to the ice, close to… the [glass], yelled over the [glass], “Frog!” You know, like, so, I, you know, I heard that, obviously. So, I don’t… know how much of that actually happens and how much you actually hear. I remember that time, hearing that, and really made me feel uncomfortable… So, anyway, not that I heard that very often or that I witnessed that stuff very often, but I know it does happen, so…”
While there is little question that French-Canadians retain most of the advantages of white privilege in Canada, particularly as settlers in a colonial society, the fact that discrimination exists even against this group testifies to the failure of the ethos of multiculturalism in hockey culture: only Anglo-Canadian whiteness enjoys fully normative status.
A goaltender who played in the American Hockey League and NHL in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s and identified as having a multiracial heritage was quick to acknowledge that racism was a fundamental part of the experience of professional hockey for non-white players: “You know, it wasn’t bad for me, but I do have some friends, like, Black friends that play that had bananas thrown at them, like, slurs and stuff. But, I think a lot of the, it doesn’t happen too much in the NHL, but it’s happened to a lot of my friends and, the fans, and all.” When I asked him if most non-white players he knew had experiences with racism in the game, he quickly replied, “Yeah, for sure.”
Finally, a former major-junior Ontario Hockey League player in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s, who identified as Jewish, suggests how deeply ingrained racism is in the world of high-performance semi-professional hockey.
“If you’re not a white Christian, don’t even mention anything else. Don’t ask for time off on your holidays, don’t bring it up to the team, because it just causes some alternative discourse, and they want the team in military precision. I know it’s slowly changing, but the people in management now were the people playing before, in the times of racism. Listen, if you can put money in the pockets of the owners or the players, they’ll have you there. But, if you’re just one of those average guys, like, it’s just brutal…. You know, a lot of people doing cocaine and stuff, it’s like sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll kind of attitude. But, it’s like, oh, the Black kid does one thing wrong, he’s out of here. And, you don’t want to be Jewish, you don’t want to be Black, you don’t want to be, you definitely don’t want to be Asian. You know, the Jew is just like, you know, Holocaust jokes all over the place. The Black is like, the n-word. There’s more hate towards, I would say, Blacks…. Anything that’s not white and Christian. It’s like, Catholic is okay, Evangelist is okay, Mormon fine, but mostly you want to be a Protestant white guy from a farm. And then you’re like, ‘That’s the kid we want, gettin’ up early, working hard on the farm, you know, grinding it out, has no fancy education to any extent.’”
The pervasive extent of racism in junior hockey is readily apparent in these remarks. The culture he describes is the polar-opposite of Canadian multiculturalism as it exists in popular rhetoric and legislation. Anglo-Whiteness, again, is esteemed as normative and all other expressions of identity are censured when they fail to adequately mimic it. The player continues:
“I was the only Jew in the OHL that year, so I always saw things a little differently. Someone asked me, first of all, always Holocaust jokes. Like…people would say, ‘Oh, you should have played for the Osha-witz [Oshawa] Generals,’ you know? And I was like, ‘Okay, whatever.’ Eat it. But, if a younger kid said that, I remember a younger, a rookie, a few years later, said that, and I remember choking him. You know, like, I was really mad and I grabbed him by the throat and he said [he makes a choking sound], I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s right, you can’t say anything, kid.’ And then I realized, ‘What am I even doing?’ And someone said to me, ‘That’s okay that you’re Jewish, you still celebrate Christmas, right?’ Like, okay, I’m not very Jewish if I’m playing hockey every Friday night, every Saturday night’s a game. But, my grandfather was in the Holocaust, so, you know, to be called––and he was in Auschwitz, actually––so to be called Osha-witz Generals, like, you know, like, there’s just so much racism built in, in the coaches. There was a Black kid on the team, and it was dark in the back of the bus, and the coach was counting and he said to the kid, ‘Eh, smile,’ and then, ‘I can’t see you,’ you know what I mean?”
As someone who identifies as a secular Jew, I can safely say that I have never experienced anything resembling the degree of anti-Semitism described here. This is not to say that anti-Semitism does not exist in Canada or the United States (or that my experience can speak for others), but simply to underline the extremity of these racist incidents. That speaking in such terms is tacitly deemed acceptable –even a younger player, subordinated within the strict hierarchy of sporting culture, feels empowered to use this language – speaks to the virulence and ubiquity of racism in Canadian hockey.
There is no denying the significance of hockey in Canadian culture. Former long-time Prime Minister Stephen Harper once called it “deeply reflective of the character of the nation.” I’m certainly not saying that he was wrong. But, if he was right, then it’s time we face up to the fact that Canada may be more racist than most people like to think.
There’s no doubt that Canadian hockey is.
Nathan Kalman-Lamb is author of the new book Game Misconduct: Injury, Fandom, and the Business of Sport (Fernwood Publishing) and co-author of Out of Left Field: Social Inequality and Sports (with Gamal Abdel-Shehid). He is a Lecturing Fellow at Duke University, where he teaches on social inequality and sports. You can find him on Twitter @nkalamb.