Playing The Race Card

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Playing the race card

Some people are too quick to scream racism when events unrelated to ethnic heritage or skin color get out of hand, but then racism can be a subtle prejudice even its perpetrators do not recognize.

This should have been a big weekend for Manitoba’s Keystone Junior Hockey League, a collection of mostly small-town teams made up largely of teenagers. The Arborg Ice Dawgs and the Norway House North Stars were fighting for the championship and fans had driven from all over the province to watch playoff games slated for Saturday and Sunday in Gimli, Manitoba.

But the games weren’t played. Instead, the season abruptly ended with a controversial forfeiture, allegations of racism and threats to expel the North Stars, who are owned by the Norway House Cree Nation.

It’s this sense of historic injustice that led the leaders of Norway House First Nation to cry discrimination when the Keystone Junior Hockey League refused to play a single game in the playoff final in the northern community.

The suspension, however, was based on the very real fact opposing teams in the seven-team league suffered extreme abuse and violence from players and fans in Norway House. Last season Arborg players had to be escorted by police from the Norway House arena after a playoff game and in January the KJHL put the North Stars on probation in part, the league said, because of abusive behaviour by its fans during home games. In March, several players from another team were severely injured. Last month, the league went farther and banned Norway House from hosting any more playoff games this season.

The ban came after a rough playoff game between the North Stars and the Selkirk Fishermen which included a brawl, more than 30 penalties and serious injuries to some players. At one point nine North Stars players were in the penalty box. Both teams allegedly made racist taunts and one North Stars official allegedly berated the referees for “only helping the white boys."

Norway House responded by firing two coaches and taking other measures, but it does not appear the team’s leaders reacted fast enough on such an important matter as safety.

The playoff series was rescheduled for Gimli, but Norway House refused to make the trip as an act of protest, resulting in a forfeit.

It’s unfortunate allegations of racism surfaced, particularly since it’s teenagers who are affected, but the hockey league should not have been surprised aboriginal people are sensitive about the way they are treated.

Norway House may feel like the injured party, but the community’s leaders must assure visiting teams they will be treated respectfully. That’s the best strategy for building relationships in a world perceived to be hostile.

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