Things We Don’t Talk About: Residential Schools and hockey


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Indian Residential Schools are a dark part of Canada’s history; it is a fact that we would probably prefer be swept under the rug.  The history of American slavery continues to be part of everyday vernacular (whether popular or not), yet residential schools and Canadian settlement really aren’t talked about. It wasn’t something that I learned about in social studies growing up.  It would be “impolite” to speak of such issues considering that our country is all multicultural and Hakuna Matata today.  At least, that’s the story we like to tell ourselves.  By looking at the history of hockey in residential schools we can see how yesterday affects our present day, because while the NHL has a “decent” share of Indigenous representatives, women’s hockey is missing a key component.  This post intends to amplify the work of scholars working to make Indigenous experiences relevant to the broader Canadian sporting history.

Janice Forsyth (2013) explains that residential schools were

generally large and situated near non-Native towns and cities, so that children from distant communities had little or no choice but to ‘reside’ there throughout the school year, or, in many cases, year-round….The basic contours of the residential system are clear.  The Catholic, United, Anglican, Methodist, and Presbyterian Churches had been operating these institutions before Confederation in 1867…The purpose of the experiment was to see if the manual training and religious instruction would take better effect if the children were removed from their home environments. (p.18)

These schools were tools of assimilation; institutions for breaking the Aboriginal spirit.  Most of the residential schools were located in Western Canada but they could be found from coast to coast.

Physical practices linked to schooling constituted a new form of disciplinary society in Canada in the late nineteenth century.  This was particularly true for Indigenous people, whose cultural traditions had increasingly been subjected to intense scrutiny in an effort by religious and government agents to understand, control, and ultimately reshape those practices.  The prevalent restrictions were those placed on traditional indigenous ceremonies, for instance, the potlatch and sun dance in the 1880s.  There was a widespread belief among the broader population that these and other indigenous customs were uncivilized, and that indigenous people needed to engage in more productive forms of behaviour so that they could contribute to the growing Canadian state. (Forsyth, 2013, p.21)

One such physical practice that was encouraged was hockey, for boys. Forsyth’s chapter begins with an interview with a man named “Bill” who reflects on his time in a residential school in northwestern Ontario.

Sometimes Bill’s wife would join in the conversation. Although she had attended the same school at roughly the same time, she and Bill had never met there because school officials kept male and female pupils segregated.  As if to emphasize the pervasiveness of this segregation, she explained that she learned about the hockey team only much later in life, through conversations with her husband.  Boys and girls mostly played at different times, or, when they were outside all at once, they were restricted to opposite sides of the building so that neither could see what the other was doing.

Bill enjoyed playing on the hockey team…Talking about his sports days evoked moments of pride and amusement – a sharp contrast with his recollections of schooling. (pg.15-16)

For Bill, the only good memory he had from residential school was playing hockey. He made friends, got the opportunity to travel, learned the value of teamwork, and cherished the memories made.  This notion has been picked up popularly by mediums such as the CBC, in articles like, “How hockey offered salvation at Indian residential schools.” One residential school survivor interviewed in the CBC article was physically and sexually abused at the Ermineskin Indian Residential school, “but went on to play varsity hockey at the University of Alberta where he studied law.” Habkirk and Forsyth (n.d.) remind us that we must be wary of these kinds of “silver linings” presented about residential schools because “framing sport and recreation as ‘good’ components of the system implies that there were some beneficial elements to the broader program of assimilation that negated some of the ‘bad’ things”. As if to say, yes this particular individual was physically and sexually abused but varsity hockey and a law degree seem like a fair trade.


Photo from Active History.

Moreover, the experience for Aboriginal women was even more complicated.  As M. Ann Hall (2013) writes, “Aboriginal sport history speaks eloquently about male sporting heroes and experiences, a vantage point that often ignores its heroines” (p.65).  Many Indigenous communities are matriarchal societies, which made them “incompatible with the kind of colonial power dynamics that would be necessary to maintain colonial power” (Anderson cited in Hall, p.66).  Young girls were taught traditionally feminine pursuits such as beadwork, cooking, cleaning and knitting.

Boys were given the best recreational equipment, had more time to play outdoors, benefited from more clubs and sports teams, and in many ways were given more freedom.  … ‘Boring, that’s what play time was. Some play. We couldn’t do nothing. Dolls, knitting, things like that but not playing, not like the boys. They had balls, bats, hockey sticks, everything. Sundays were the worst. I hated Sundays. We couldn’t even work on Sundays. Just sat in the room or went out on those awful walks” (p.73)

Shinny was considered a woman’s game, but not organized, competitive hockey. Notably, Bev Beaver played hockey (among other sports) on the Six Nations reserve (Ontario) with the boys.  At the age of thirteen she was a star on the bantam boys team but was only allowed to play in exhibition games because girls could not take part in regular league or championship games (Hall, 2013).


Young girls sewing in a residential school. Photo from CTV News.

Today, there are many young Indigenous girls who play ice hockey; however, the majority compete for Aboriginal or First Nations only teams. It makes one wonder how many Indigenous female players would have competed in Olympic Games had they been allowed to equally participate in sport at an early age. Again, not to say that this would absolve us of our national guilt, but we have effectively erased a portion of history by not letting it happen.  Where are the female Carey Prices and Jordin Tootoos?

I think what’s great about someone like Carey Price is that he is not only an icon for Indigenous youth but for everyone and every age; everyone wants to be like, near, or have Carey Price on their team. In my opinion, part of that transcendence has to do with the fact that Price visually passes as “white”, as does his name. Someone like Jordin Tootoo on the other hand is much easier to label as a “minority” role model.  Hall reminds us:

The term ‘role model’ can be viewed as an updated version of the old adage “You must be a credit to your race” and thus reinforces racist notions about white cultural superiority.  Certainly, successful white women athletes become role models and some make a living as motivational speakers, but the important point here is that successful Aboriginal athletes are frequently labelled role models for only Native youth. (italics in original, p.87)

Author and journalist, Naomi Klein argues in her book, This Changes Everything, about climate change, that “missing fish don’t tend to make the news, for one thing, there are no pictures, just a handful of nothing.” I think the lack of Indigenous women in high performance hockey is a cultural parallel to Klein’s environmental observation, because while we can talk about the whiteness and cost of hockey as visible barriers to entry, we don’t talk about the fact that some Canadians were simply barred from playing.  In the case of Indigenous women’s hockey, it is hard to appreciate that which was never there. There is simply an absence.

Thus, we can see that the relationship between Indigenous peoples and hockey is a complicated one. Even though former Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized in 2008 on behalf of Canada for “the treatment of children in Indian Residential Schools”, and referred to it as a “sad chapter in our history”, it is a story that continues to be written.  The more I learn about hockey the more I agree that it is one of the few threads that connects Canadians together, but to conceive of this thread as a universally positive one would be naive.

To learn more about sport in Indian Residential Schools, check out: Habkirk, E.J. & Forsyth, J. (n.d.).  Truth, reconciliation, and the politics of the body in Indian residential school history. Active History.

Works Cited

Forsyth, J.  (2013).  Bodies of meaning: Sports and Games at Canadian Residential Schools.  In J. Forsyth & A.R. Giles (eds.), Aboriginal Peoples & Sport in Canada: Historical foundations and contemporary issues (pp.15-34).  Vancouver: UBC Press.

Hall, M.A.  (2013).  Toward a history of Aboriginal women in Canadian sport.  In J. Forsyth & A.R. Giles (eds.), Aboriginal Peoples & Sport in Canada: Historical foundations and contemporary issues (pp.64-91).  Vancouver: UBC Press.








3 thoughts on “Things We Don’t Talk About: Residential Schools and hockey

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