One of the things we try to do in the sportswriting world is produce “evergreen” content, the kind of stuff that can be read at any point in the future and still feel fresh. Sometimes it’s easy, and sometimes it’s impossible.
With this incredibly difficult content, it should suffice to say that, no matter when in the Vancouver Canucks’ 2021 offseason you read these words, you’re not all that removed from another horrific discovery at one of Canada’s residential school sites.
This particular piece is being written in the wake of around 751 unmarked graves being found within the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan.
But they aren’t the first such confirmation of what many already knew would be found on such grounds, and they will not be the last.
It is the duty of every Canadian to reflect on these things that we are learning about our country’s history (or, in this case of those who were already well-versed in the history of residential schools, these things we are having made viscerally unignorable).
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And, given the subject matter of our blog, I’m taking this opportunity to reflect on the role the Canucks organization can play in the discussion moving forward.
True reconciliation will need to come from the Canadian government and the religious groups who were the primary perpetrators of these crimes against humanity.
Though the Canucks, like all Vancouver-based organizations, conduct their business on the unceded territory of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaʔ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations, and undoubtedly benefit greatly from doing so, the franchise bears no direct responsibility for the horrors of the past.
But that doesn’t mean they can’t take on some responsibility for the reconciliatory actions of the future.
The stated goal of the residential school, in the words of John A. MacDonald, was to erase Indigenous people and their culture within the newly-founded confederation of Canada. He wrote in 1879 that he believed “that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”
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In the grand scheme of it all, MacDonald was unsuccessful. Indigenous culture, in its myriad forms of expression, has survived the intentional hardships placed against it and continued to thrive here in its native land.
But the residential school system was not without impact. Its desired erasure can be felt today in the marginalization of Indigenous people and culture within Canadian society. It can be felt in the ways in which the original and continued protectors of this land are rarely honoured as such. It can be felt in the fact that “Canadian culture” still feels wholly distinct from, and usually placed in greater prominence, than Indigenous culture.
And it is here that the Canucks can make the most difference as a modern-day cultural icon.
Nothing the organization could ever do would make up for what has been inflicted upon Indigenous people throughout Canadian history. But it can do plenty to ensure a brighter and more indigenized future for the entire province of British Columbia.
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Is there a single entity in BC with a greater reach than that of the Vancouver Canucks? Probably not. More people tune in for Canucks games than the nightly news or the latest Dr. Bonnie Henry updates. Heck, more people watch the Canucks than vote in our provincial elections.
Ergo, when the Canucks make a statement, it gets heard louder than statements made by any other organization in BC.
Moving forward, more statements need to be made in which Indigenous culture is elevated and celebrated. The Canucks play a game of national cultural importance upon a land in which Indigenous culture was purposefully erased by that very same nation. It is time to start pushing hard in the opposite direction.
What could that look like?
It has to be something more than a land acknowledgement or the occasional theme night — though those events remain important and are certainly steps in the same direction. Steps in the right direction only really count if they’re followed by more steps in the same direction.
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Indigenous culture is already deeply ingrained within this team and its fanbase. The current logo is, at the very least, inspired by Indigenous art. One of the most prominent and beloved Indigenous athletes, Gino Odjick, played his best years in Vancouver and became a local legend. Just last season, Braden Holtby turned an unfortunate situation into an opportunity to collaborate with local artist Luke Marston on one of the nicest masks in the sport of hockey.
The ties are there, the Canucks just have to see the opportunities and seize them.
Maybe that involves the regular singing of the anthem in local languages or, even better, the occasional skipping of the anthem altogether in lieu of a fully Indigenous opening ceremony.
Maybe it involves special jerseys with local lettering, to be auctioned off for the benefit of various Indigenous charities, similar to what Ethan Bear did in Edmonton.
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Maybe it involves the design of a new logo that actually incorporates legitimate Indigenous art.
These are just suggestions, but it’s probably not even my place to make them. As a white settler, I cannot help but perpetuate and complicate the issue by continuing to thrust myself into the center of it. Chances are good that I’ve already said something unwittingly ignorant in this article, and for that, I sincerely apologize. I’m learning — far too late in life, but I am learning.
The real solution here is for the Canucks to hire more Indigenous people and have them help devise initiatives through which the Canucks can elevate and celebrate Indigenous culture in the short and long term. Give them a big budget and the full support of ownership and management. Reach out to existing community leaders and respectfully ask for their input as to what changes might do the most good. Make it a stated organizational priority, and listen when suggestions are made. Make indigenization an everyday aspect of the franchise’s business.
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Now, at this point, some of you are no doubt asking your computer screens “Why?”
“Why the Canucks? Why is it their responsibility?”
The answer to that is a fairly simple one.
Elevating and celebrating Indigenous culture, and especially that culture native to the Lower Mainland, is the Canucks’ responsibility because they’re among the groups most capable of doing so.
No business, governmental agency, advocacy group, or organization of any kind can make a statement and have it heard by more British Columbians than the Canucks. There’s certainly no other sports team.
So say it loud, proud, and often through the PA system of Rogers Arena: Indigenous culture hasn’t gone anywhere despite the crimes of the past. It is here to stay, and it is worth celebrating throughout the 2021/22 season and beyond.
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The Canucks undoubtedly have the power to affect positive change.
Will they take the responsibility?