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Decolonizing Canada’s national game

Indigenous Hockey Research Network looks at hockey as a vehicle for reconciliation.

IHRN members at a pick-up game of hockey during the visioning gathering at Queen's University.
Indigenous Hockey Research Network members pause during their "visioning gathering" at Queen's for a pick-up game at the Leon's Centre in Kingston.

One of the first things that comes to mind when people think about Canada is ice hockey. For many Canadians, the sport is deeply linked to perceptions of national identity, and hockey stories help explain who they are and where they belong. But where do Indigenous peoples fit in these narratives about what it means to be truly Canadian? Queen’s University researcher, Sam McKegney, helped create the Indigenous Hockey Research Network (IHRN) with hopes of illuminating, complicating, and developing how we view our national pastime.

“Given its popularity, we see hockey as a potential meeting place for community building and Indigenous empowerment,” says Dr. McKegney, who received a $305,000 Insight Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) in 2018 to conduct the IHRN’s work. “Understanding our shared and contrary experiences within the context of the sport could also shed light on a potential vehicle for the ongoing pursuit of reconciliation in our country.”

Through archival research, personal interviews, data analysis, and Indigenous community-led approaches, Dr. McKegney’s team looks to uncover and engage with the sport’s Indigenous past, present, and future to understand its role in relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada.

Hockey occupies a complicated space between Indigenous self-determination and ongoing settler colonialism in Canada, as in the past it served both oppressive and liberating roles for Indigenous people. According to Dr. McKegney, the sport was employed in residential schools and elsewhere as a tool of “colonial social engineering” designed to encourage Indigenous youth to shed connections with their traditional cultural values and enforce new, prescriptive identity formations. Conversely, many survivors of residential schools claim playing the game helped them endure the trauma of those years.

"This duality in hockey’s history could present a means through which to support Indigenous sovereignty, community well-being, and gender equality,” he says, “as well as to promote settler understanding of colonial history and potential pathways toward righting injustice. ”

From Friday, March 1 to Saturday, March 2, Dr. McKegney hosted 15 IHRN scholars and graduate students at the Queen’s Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts for a “visioning gathering”. These experts in sport history, sociology, gender theory, narrative studies, and filmmaking, together with Indigenous and non-Indigenous community advisors, worked to hone the research objectives and methodologies of the multi-year project.

“There was so much knowledge and experience present at the gathering in Kingston. To have that focus and attention on our work makes our projects that much stronger,” says Janice Forsyth, IHRN member and director of the First Nations Studies program at Western University. “The network is and will be an important site for us to share information, and to test and refine our ideas and analysis, as well as a critical source of support for the graduate student members, who now have a well-defined research community to rely on for assistance and feedback.”

Vision gathering participants also took time to develop skills and expertise necessary to best share their future findings, during a daylong series of workshops facilitated by Abenaki filmmaker Kim O’bomsawin. The IHRN team aims to produce a documentary film on the project as work progresses over the next five years.

In keeping with the project’s aim to promote community building, the vision gathering participants bonded further over a pick-up hockey game at the Leon’s Centre on the evening of March 1.

“Research on Indigenous hockey is really important because if we’re able to figure out the keys to positive experiences and skills and passions that last a lifetime, then that’s great,” says Mike Auksi, Ojibway/Estonian international and University of Toronto/Ryerson varsity hockey player. “On the other end of that, if we can figure out what’s leading to negative experiences or leading people to stop playing the game, then we may have a small part to play in improving that as well.”

Learn more about Dr. McKegney’s research project: “Decolonizing Sport: Indigeneity, Hockey, and Canadian Nationalism”.