It is impossible to defend the violence that took place during the bantam hockey game between Lake Manitoba First Nation and a team from Stonewall. An official was attacked. There is no excuse for this kind of extremely negative behaviour and the perpetrators must be punished.
But that won't stop this kind of thing from happening again, because we are not dealing with the real problem and the underlying reasons these things happen. We keep ignoring the significant role racial conflict plays.
The Lake Manitoba coach claims "they see us differently" and "the ref was abusing our children and being racist." Posts from parents on Facebook say the calls were "one-sided." This doesn't give any excuse to attack the officials.
The problem is complaints like this are quickly dismissed or ignored. We bury our heads in the sand and deal with the situation in generalities.
Trying to get people to remember that "it's just a hockey game" isn't working. Blaming the problem on parenting zealousness or trying live out one's fantasies through children doesn't work, either. If the problems stem from a clash of cultures, nothing will be solved if we don't deal with it head-on.
From experience, I know native teams are treated differently when they play non-native teams.
I saw this first-hand when I played on an all-native team (First Nations and Métis), which was an exception to the mostly Caucasian makeup of the other teams in the leagues we played in. I often used to hear the complaint "they always pick on the Indian teams," but I didn't really take this seriously before I started playing for the Scouts.
I must admit that with our black uniforms and long hair and a few missing teeth (errant pucks, not punches), our team looked a little rough and tough. But we had stacked our team with fast, skilful players and we preferred to play a finesse game because that was to our advantage. Our principal game strategy was to "stay out of the box."
Referees have actually admitted their first impression of our team was "I'm gonna have to keep an extra-careful watch on these guys." Other players have said they figured they might have to carry their sticks higher in anticipation of retaliating against dirty play they expected.
When the butt ends and slashing and spearing started, it was most often initiated by the other team, but we always paid the higher price.
I bent over backwards trying to be objective, but I saw this type of unfair treatment time and time again involving the Scouts and many other native teams when they played Caucasian squads.
There were times when the Scouts would go up by a good margin on the scoreboard and then would have two players in the box at all times. Was there some subliminal attempt by the white referee to even things up? It sure looked that way.
I cannot count the number of times our players had to restrain themselves from reacting to being called "wagon-burners" when the referee was out of earshot (or when players were let off with a warning when the referee did hear taunts).
If this just happened every so often, I could chalk it up to isolated incidents, but it happened over and over again.
First Nations communities don't get a pass here. I have also seen white teams go onto a reserve and get absolutely screwed by local officials.
There is no justification for the ugly incidents that took place during the Stonewall game. People are calling for harsh penalties such as expelling the team from the league or suspending players involved for life. No doubt these actions must be severely punished, but we are just going to face this situation again if we don't deal with the big picture, because the behaviour we are witnessing is part of something much, much deeper and darker.
LMFN folks are now apologizing for what happened, as they should. But again, they cite being treated unfairly for driving them over the edge. As long as First Nations continue to feel they are being discriminated against, these problems are not going to be solved. We don't know each other and we have built up these stereotypes that are manifesting themselves in our behaviour toward each other in our hockey rinks. It's not right, but it exists, and many of us who have played cross-cultural games know the reasons why.
Yes, lay down the law when things get out of hand. At the same time, let's get at the root of the problem. This might not only be a good thing in our hockey rinks, but in our society in general.
Don Marks, a Winnipeg writer, is author of They Call Me Chief, which deals with racism and stereotyping in hockey.