Inside an arena in Sept-Iles, kids from the Innu community of Mani Utenam – all ages and skill – lace up, grab a stick, and hit the ice, exploring the love for Canada’s national sport hockey.
Parents, as they watch, are loving the results.
“My son, he has a lot of trouble at school and I find this helps,” says one parent.
“It’s fun to see the kids skate, and i think it’s a very good experience for the youth.”
This hockey program – still in its infancy – promotes teamwork, discipline, and tough lessons about the game.
“This is the last time I’m going to tell you – the next person who comes to see me during practice will be sent away,” yells the coach.
But it’s games outside the community that teach First Nations players tougher lessons about life.
No matter how much equipment these kids pile on, some blows simply can’t be deflected.
“My son he witnessed it and he’s seven years old and he said he doesn’t even want to come and see me play no more,” says Gesgapegiag Chiefs coach and player Dave Robichaud.
Just this past weekend, Gesgapegiag, a first nation in eastern Quebec, a match between the Gesgapegiag Chiefs and the Chandler Goons quickly soured when a chandler player allegedly called a chief player the french equivalent of “f-ing indian.”
According to the Chiefs, the remark was used again in the locker room area after the game.
Community members have since started a petition – now thousands strong – asking mayors in the region to adopt a zero tolerance policy for racism in arenas.
Which would allow Condo to see his son pursue a dream with confidence – instead of fear.
“So me, at least cause he’s in category novice, I would want him to play the wonderful sport of hockey that’s well known in Canada, to not worry about ‘okay now this person’s gonna tell me this.'”
Tommy Neeposh, manager of AAA team, the First Nations Elites, also called for a no racism policy.
During a game in Quebec City in 2018, he recorded video of racial taunts slung by the opposing team.
Those on the ice had a hard time forgetting.
“War cries, you know, hands over the mouth – that stuff,” remembers Julien Marshall from the Elites. “Calling us savages, telling us to go home, ‘we pay our taxes for you.’”
As of late, discussions of racism are permeating the ranks of the hockey world.
Calgary Flames head coach Bill Peters resigned in November amid allegations of racial slurs and physical abuse of players in previous jobs came to light.
Former NHL player Akim Aliu has tweeted that he had a racial slur directed his way by a former coach in 2009-10 while a member of the American Hockey League’s Rockford IceHogs.
The 30-year-old Aliu never referred to Peters by name, but did reference Calgary’s airport code “YYC” when writing about the alleged coach involved in the matter.
After being confronted with a slew of misconduct allegations, the NHL said in a statement that they’re undertaking a “broader, thorough review and process,” while working to ensure “that hockey is an open and inclusive sport at all levels.”
Record-holding First Nations athletes like Carey Price have gone on record to denounce all forms of racism.
“I feel like this game is meant for everybody,” said Price. “I think it’s important that you understand that that you need to be proud of where you come from and enjoy the game for what it is, that’s what it’s meant to be.”
Players say these incidents, as they become more known, will not be tolerated and are taking steps to encourage dialogue.
In the meantime, these young players from Uashat Mak Mani Utenam continue to learn the game.
And parents hope their experience with the sport isn’t as hard, or as cold, as the ice they play on.
-with files from the Canadian Press