Canadian Aboriginals and Hockey: A Complex and Conflicted History (Part 1)

In mid-February, I gave two guest lectures at York University on the topic of Canadian Aboriginal Peoples and hockey. The lectures were delivered to undergraduate students in two different courses: “Sport, ‘Race’ and Popular Culture in Canada” and “Canadian Culture and Physical Activity.”

In the lectures I attempted to explore the experience of Aboriginals in hockey in the broader and extremely complex context of Aboriginal history since colonization. Needless to say this was a challenging subject to broach, and one which is fraught with problematic issues – particularly as I, a white Canadian, was speaking about a colonized people who have been institutionally victimized throughout the past five centuries (in my lectures, I was very upfront about my positionality and its problematic nature).

This was an interesting, and at times very upsetting, subject to research, and I found the lectures and the following questions/discussions very stimulating. I have decided to write about key aspects of my lectures in a series of posts here on Hockey in Society.

After the jump, I present the first of these posts, which examines some aspects of Aboriginal impact on and involvement in hockey until the mid-twentieth century.

From Baggataway to Lacrosse to Hockey: Early Aboriginal Involvement in Hockey

To understand how hockey became Canada’s de facto national sport, it is important to understand its early development alongside Canada’s national summer sport: lacrosse. Lacrosse was formalized as a sport in the mid-1800s by George Beers, a Montreal dentist who saw the game as a uniquely Canadian activity distinct from British sports such as cricket. Lacrosse was thus developed as an explicitly Canadian sport that contributed to a unique national culture. Lacrosse’s origins, however, lay in the First Nations game of baggataway – and the formalization of lacrosse, therefore, represented the cultural appropriation of an Aboriginal physical cultural tradition.

Michael Robidoux, in Men at Play: A Working Understanding of Professional Hockey and in other published research, has described how many working class Frenchmen in colonial Canada greatly admired the masculinity embodied by First Nations men with whom they had contact. In particular, trappers and other working men admired the physical prowess and aggression present in games such as baggataway:

For a certain sector of French Canadian males—later known as les Canadiens—the First Nations male provided an alternative model of masculinity to what they had known in France, one where physicality, stoicism, and bravado were valued and celebrated, not repressed, as was the typical Christian model of masculinity. . . .

Early French settlers began emulating First Nations males, and in doing so began sharing in their cultural practices. Occupational and survival-related pursuits such as canoeing, snowshoeing, and hunting were some of the obvious activities that were learned and performed. Native team sports such as lacrosse also proved to be of tremendous interest to les Canadiens, as these games gave both First Nations and French males the opportunity to prove their worth to one another as men.[1]

When lacrosse, and later hockey, became codified sports in the mid- to late-1800s, the First Nations masculinity so prized by the early French settlers became similarly valourized in the context of rule-bound, organized sport. However, whereas organized lacrosse remained the domain of middle and upper class Anglophone men, hockey developed a broader participation base that included people, such as working class and Aboriginal men, barred from playing lacrosse because of strict – and exclusively class-based – definitions of what constituted an “amateur” player. As Robidoux explains:

If the success of lacrosse in Canada was achieved by marketing it as the game of the people, thanks to the implementation of amateurism by Canadian sport officials these same people were quickly excluded from the game. . . . Those unable to play responded by participating in a new, exciting, and more accessible alternative: hockey. Unlike lacrosse officials’ rejection of professional interests, hockey organizers took an alternative route. They succumbed to the lucrative potential of professional sport. By the twentieth century, therefore, lacrosse had lost its national appeal and hockey had taken on the mantle of Canada’s national game.”[2]

Therefore, in hockey’s earliest incarnations as a formalized sport, the idealized masculinity of some Aboriginals was valourized within the sport. Furthermore, unlike in lacrosse, Aboriginals were not excluded from participating competitively in hockey (although they certainly faced more barriers than white Canadians). As a result, individual Aboriginal players, and even entire teams consisting entirely of Aboriginal players, were not uncommon in the hockey in the first half of the twentieth century. As Kevin Plummer writes in his article about the 1928 Cree and Ojibway hockey tour:

It would not have been all that unusual to see aboriginals playing hockey in the 1920s. Several of the players on the Cree & Ojbway [sic] Tour had played in Toronto’s Mercantile League or similar leagues in North Bay and elsewhere. Even a team composed entirely of aboriginals would not have been that unusual. . . . In northern British Columbia during the early 1930s, a team composed of those from the Shuswap nation, the Alkali Lake Braves, was the dominant team in the region

Alkali Lake Braves (Image from: http://hockeygods.com/)

I have written elsewhere about the Cree and Ojibway tour, and this is a topic I discussed in my lecture – particularly as it appears to have been an interesting example of Aboriginals exercising agency within broader social and political structures that marginalized them. In particular, I picked up on Plummer’s suggestions that the players may have organized the tour themselves and intentionally played upon the expectations of their white audiences by dressing in stereotypical costume and marketing themselves as “full-blooded Indians.” Throughout my lectures, I continually emphasized to students that Aboriginals’ historical representation within and participation in the physical cultures of dominant Canadian culture are extremely complex issues for which there are no simple explanations. In other words, I attempted to find a middle ground between structure and agency in explaining events such as the Cree and Ojibway tour.

Critical to remember in this entire discussion is that the cultural appropriation of baggataway as a uniquely “Canadian” form of sport, which contributed to the popularization of hockey as Canada’s national game,  was itself a part of the much broader process of colonization of Aboriginal Peoples – it was a common practice of European colonizers to forcibly replace indigenous forms of physical activity, which in many cases carried deep cultural or religious meaning, with European ones.

The next posts in this series will continue to discuss issues of Aboriginal representation within hockey, as well as the role of hockey in the attempted cultural assimilation of Aboriginal Peoples.


[1] Michael A. Robidoux, (2002), “Imagining a Canadian Identity through Sport: A Historical Interpretation of Lacrosse and Hockey,” Journal of American Folklore, 115(456), p. 214.

[2] Michael A. Robidoux, (2001), Men at Play: A Working Understanding of Professional Hockey (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s Press), p. 43.

About markdavidnorman
Mark is a PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto, where he researches sociocultural issues in sport and physical cultures. He is also a life-long hockey fan, becoming obsessed with the sport at a young age and cheering for the Vancouver Canucks for over two (mostly futile) decades. In addition to his work at Hockey in Society, Mark has been active as a fan hockey blogger for over three years. Mark has worked as a Research Assistant at York University (Toronto, ON) and the Centre for Sport Policy Studies at the University of Toronto. He has presented his research at numerous academic conferences and been published in the Sociology of Sport Journal and Journal of Sport and Social Issues.

One Response to Canadian Aboriginals and Hockey: A Complex and Conflicted History (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: The Hockey Hall of Fame and the Politics of Hockey Legacy: How and Why Are Certain Players Remembered? « Hockey in Society

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