Canada’s Game– violence, misogyny and racism in hockey
Democracy, Equity + Justice, 2023
Laura Robinson is an award-winning journalist, author and filmmaker. In 1992 she was the first Canadian journalist to write about sexual abuse when The Toronto Star published, "Sexual Abuse: Sport's Dirty Little Secret". In the 1990s, she worked with CBC TV's The Fifth Estate on two documentaries about sexual abuse in sport, and in 1998 published Crossing the Line: Violence and Sexual Assault in Canada's National Sport. As University of Calgary's Writer in Residence in 2001, Laura wrote the play, Niigaanibatowaad: FrontRunners, with First Nation long-distance runners who went to residential school in the 1960s. In 2007 they worked with the Aboriginal People's Television Network to film the play, which is now distributed worldwide by the National Film Board. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools cited the film and Laura's commitment to creating a space for truth telling by Indigenous people in their 2015 Report. Laura has written six books on issues in sport, received an Honourary Doctorate from York University for this work, and continues to advocate for seismic changes in sport, which she believes are fundamentally about human-rights.
Courtney Szto is an Assistant Professor at Queen’s University and her work largely engages with groups who seek to create anti-oppressive resistance in sporting spaces. She is a qualitative researcher who focuses on issues of social justice from an intersectional perspective.
Her doctoral research focused on South Asian experiences in ice hockey as it relates to cultural citizenship and post-9/11 racial discrimination in Canada. Her first monograph, Changing on the Fly: Hockey through the voices of South Asian Canadians, was published by Rutgers University Press in October 2020 (Canadians can order through UBC Press), and won the Outstanding Book Award at the 2021 North American Society for the Sociology of Sport Annual Conference.
Courtney Szto is also the Managing Editor for Hockey in Society, an Associate Editor for Engaging Sports, and on the Editorial Board for the Sociology of Sport Journal. In her volunteer life, she is a member of Black Girl Hockey Club’s Advisory Board.
By: Victoria Barclay, MA Student, UBC Department of Sociology
Tamara Taggart facilitated an insightful discussion between Laura Robinson and Dr. Courtney Szto, on the dark side of Canada’s national winter sport—ice hockey. The perpetuation of racism and misogyny, as well as the promotion of sexual violence within hockey culture, was discussed by the panelists.
As described by Robinson, hockey is a “very beautiful sport,” but it has ugliness within it. “It’s not the sport of hockey… it’s the culture,” Robinson declared. Dr. Szto echoed this sentiment, as she has extensively researched the hockey experiences of South Asians living in the Lower Mainland. Despite the sport becoming increasingly diverse in more recent years, Dr. Szto identified the institution of hockey as resistant to adopt anti-racist and feminist ways of thinking. While describing a research participant from her work, Dr. Szto declared that they identified themselves as “Canadian more than anything else,” but still received derogatory and racist remarks, which resulted in emotional distress. Hockey culture in Canada has “invited new people into a historically violent space,” she declared.
Dr. Szto also reminded the audience that these harmful elements of ice hockey begin “much earlier” than one may initially think. “It starts with things like being able to miss school. That you are the privileged few. They create little gangs in their team gear… They were the coolest kids in school. So, I think we are socializing them at a very young age.” Dr. Szto also noted that racism within Canada’s hockey culture is worse and more pronounced when the players are younger. She stated, “that's when [racialized hockey players] got more racist comments. It tended to peter out by the time they were 14 more so because I think [the referees] are perhaps a little more attuned at that age. Or… [the perpetrators] are better at hiding it.”
But it isn’t just the players facing discrimination and violent language—racialized parents and coaches are also subjected to the racism within Canadian hockey culture. Dr. Szto recalled that she “heard from coaches who are racialized, but they pass as white, … they hear horrendous things from other coaches behind closed doors about the players that they coach.”
And this culture of violence, racism, and misogyny within hockey goes beyond Canada’s beloved game. During the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, hosted by Vancouver, BC, Robinson stated that “crime went down in Vancouver... with the exception of one crime: sexual assault.”
Robinson, who is familiar with hockey in other countries such as Finland and Sweden, noted that their sporting cultures do not “imagine maleness as defined so narrowly through the performance of sexualized violence.” And as an athlete herself, Robinson stated she had “never ran into a semblance of that kind of culture” within the sports she practiced. In her opinion, “we really need to look very hard at what culture a particular kind of Canadian male hockey creates.”
So, what needs to change?
Throughout the event, Robinson emphasized that women are “very important in hockey” and that “we need to bring in a feminist culture.” A shift in the culture, including anti-racist and feminist thinking, will spark necessary conversation and change.
When it comes to action by the National Hockey League (NHL), Dr. Szto identified the challenges of asking for change within a private business. She said “I think a lot of people do push the NHL. The fact that they are a private entity is kind of a waste of energy in some ways because they can do whatever they want… you can’t really force them to do anything.”
Finally, action is needed—and possible—at the federal level. “We need a national judicial inquiry into sport in Canada,” Robinson urged.
Throughout the conversation, Robinson and Dr. Szto concretely explained how hockey in Canada has cultivated and maintained such a harmful culture, as well as provided insights into how to move forward. As Robinson said, “until we address the deeply engrained role that misogyny plays in hockey... I think we will be telling this story over and over no matter how willing and able Hockey Canada is to try to solve it.”
It is clear to all who participated in this event that change is necessary if we are to achieve a healthier hockey culture in Canada.
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