THE HEALING POWER OF HOCKEY
CANADA'S APARTHEID: PART 4
Race relations in The Pas were bad - as close to the
Deep South as Canada gets. Native and non-native had
always been segregated, but the Helen Betty Osborne
atrocity left them loathing each other. Still, the
two communities had one thing in common and
it has begun to span the gulf that divides them
By JOHN STACKHOUSE
Wednesday, November 7, 2001 Print Edition, Page A16
The final words of O Canada as it's sung in Cree are still reverberating in the rafters when the arena's overflow crowd begins hurling the high-pitched invective that every junior hockey team travelling to northern Manitoba has come to dread.
The verbal deluge seems to work. Less than a minute into game two of the provincial finals, the home team's star forward, Justin Tetrault, a Métis, takes a pass from captain Terence Tootoo, who is Inuit, and blasts it home.
Before Mouse can flash the red goal light, the Gordon Lathlin Memorial Centre is shaking with the sound of air sirens, noise makers and the woodsy voices of 1,248 people from two communities that once were the most racially divided in Canada. To the sounds of Bachman Turner Overdrive -- You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet --the Crees, Métis, whites and a few Inuit embrace in the stands, and on the ice.
For the next two hours, the native-owned arena facing The Pas across the river will rock with delirium as the Opaskwayak Cree Nation Blizzard trounce the Winkler Flyers and build a commanding lead in their run for a third straight provincial championship -- a feat not seen in Manitoba in nearly 30 years.
But in the racially mixed stands, most people know that the Blizzard's sudden dominance is about much more than hockey. In this isolated town and reserve, which straddle the Saskatchewan River 600 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, the team has built a bridge that people once thought impossible.
It was near the arena site 30 years ago that a Cree woman named Helen Betty Osborne was murdered after being sexually assaulted by men from The Pas.
The horrible crime was followed by one of the darkest periods for race relations in modern Canadian history, as the entire population of The Pas joined in a notorious conspiracy of silence. For a decade, townspeople who knew the killers refused to identify them. Finally, one of the attackers, unable to bear his guilt any longer, went to the police.
Just a generation later, the native-owned Blizzard has used a mixed-race team and integrated home crowd to start a new chapter for both the town and reserve.
"I really believe it was the hockey club that bridged the divide," says Gary Hopper, mayor of The Pas, which is one of the Blizzard's top corporate sponsors. "When the team was announced, people bought season's tickets [he has two] and all of a sudden there was white sitting beside native, a total mix, and new friendships developing."
Amazingly, he says, "you would be hard pressed to find two communities that get along better."
Although only five years old, the Blizzard has left its mark on the record book, trouncing established clubs from the south game after game. Before the 2001 playoffs, it won 50 of 60 regular-season games with players from so many communities that the coach called it "the United Nations of hockey."
It is also one of the struggling Manitoba Junior Hockey League's few financial successes. Not only does the team sell out most home games, its bruising style of hockey packs so many arenas on the road that it has been credited with saving a league that, ironically, once ostracized Cree players.
In wins, pennants and box-office receipts, the OCN Blizzard may be the most most successful new sporting franchise on the Prairies. Which may be the reason people still wonder, when the hugs and high-fives are finished, why Perry Young killed himself.
The story of the Blizzard's lightning success, the harmony it has restored and the tragic loss of the best hockey player the reserve has produced in years has its source in a river of racial tension that persists despite the Cinderella story on ice.
Born almost a decade after the Osborne murder, Perry Young grew up on a reserve that knew little of the antagonism or poverty that had shaped its past. Like most of the 1,500 residents, he lived in a subdivision of compact prefab homes, played on the reserve's nine-hole golf course and attended its $9.5-million school.
People on both sides of the river still marvel at the transition. Only a generation ago, they had a situation that was as close as Canada could get to the Deep South. The 7,000 residents of The Pas never crossed the river to the reserve, and the natives went to town only to shop, drink or go the movies, where they sat in a separate section.
The division was about more than segregation; it spoke to the belief in both communities that the Crees were inferior people. Band councillor Henry Wilson remembers going to watch westerns with his boyhood friends and, even though they had to sit in the Indians-only section, "when we came home, every one of us wanted to be cowboys. No one wanted to be an Indian."
Discomfort turned to antagonism in 1971 after the Helen Betty Osborne killing, which became international news and the subject of a film. Whites still joke about "HBO, The Movie," in which an entire town was presented to the world as conspirators to murder.
But while the killing further divided the communities, more fundamental changes also were under way. Once bold enough to call itself "Chicago of the North," The Pas was in steady decline as its timber-based economy wilted.
Across the river, a more positive change was afoot: OCN was emerging from the Osborne case as one of Manitoba's more forward-looking bands. Money from a land-claim settlement with the federal government was invested in a modern hotel, high school, the hockey arena and the region's biggest shopping mall, a dream of the late chief Gordon Lathlin, who had tired of having his people ignored by shopkeepers in The Pas.
The new school and rink meant that white and Indian kids rarely saw each other, not even for peewee hockey. Rather than share the ice, Cree teams drove to Thompson about 400 kilometres away for tournaments, while The Pas kids went to Winnipeg.
The reserve's new mall proved to be almost as divisive. Local shopkeepers -- the ones who had refused to serve natives -- claimed that, with an IGA grocery store, Saan department store, Tim Hortons and Shell station, it would siphon off their business. Vandals smashed the mall's windows.
But no one lost business. Instead, retailers on both sides of the river began to see a steady rise in traffic as the mall helped the twin communities become a shopping magnet for northern Manitoba.
Then the Crees began lobbying for a junior hockey team.
Ever since The Pas had lost its beloved Huskies when the old northern Manitoba league folded in the 1980s, no one from the town had been willing, or able, to provide financing for a new team. The Crees, for once, were in a better position, with a 50-million-a-year business operation to backstop a franchise and a game plan to sell junior hockey to the north.
The struggling MJHL was not so sure. Its teams were so leery of making the long bus trips north -- to "Indian country," as they called it -- that they demanded that OCN pay travel costs for visiting teams. The band agreed, and the league responded by waiving its usual waiting period. Instead of two years, OCN was asked to have a team on the ice in four months.
The arrival of a Junior A franchise on the reserve was about the biggest day of Perry Young's life. He and his brother, Mike, were the stars of their midget team, and eagerly awaited the tryouts. The band council had told everyone that the new team was very much about giving opportunities to local boys like Perry, who was quickly nicknamed "the Pride of OCN."
But the band also believed in success; after all, it had built a small-business empire. It decided to hire the best coach and managers, regardless of race, and soon there was pressure from many reserve residents to recruit players the same way.
"How OCN operates is epitomized by this team," says Jim Smith, one of the Blizzard's founders. "We get the best management we can."
The band put up $100,000 to bring a coach and a general manager from Saskatchewan. It renovated the dressing rooms and training room to semi-pro standards. And it allowed the new management team to scour Western Canada for the best players.
Perry Young was among the first cuts. Still, with 16 natives on the first year's roster, the Blizzard became known as a native team. As a result, all the players discovered how some Prairie people really feel. On road trips, they were jeered as "welfare bums" and "drunks." In one arena, security guards were stationed in the sections where Blizzard fans sat. A now-defunct Web site claiming to represent the MJHL went so far as to state that OCN home games were always sold out because "they're all on welfare."
Even when the Blizzard shocked the league by making the playoffs in its debut season, the racism did not let up. Phillip Albert, a player from remote Norway House, says an opposing coach once yelled "fucking Indian" at him. His childhood friend, Clifford Scatch, says another coach called him "a brown, buck-toothed Indian," but it didn't bother him. "Racism, I'm used to it. I've had it my whole life. If I ever hear a remark, I let it blow by."
In time, the Blizzard came to be seen as some kind of ghetto for native players. Jerry Mosiondz, an assistant coach, noticed that other teams were offering to trade their own native players. "They usually say, 'We think he would fit in there,' " Mosiondz says. "I ask, 'If the boy's a good hockey player, why doesn't he fit in with you?' "
Still, the more the Blizzard won, the less the Crees seemed to care about affirmative action on the ice. When the team, in its third season, set a league record for wins and captured the provincial championship, the fans clamoured for more star players to help reach the national finals. The Cree management agreed, and dropped its goal to have a roster two-thirds native.
By last year, the team that once dressed 16 native players was down to six, and only one who was local -- a Métis boy from The Pas. Coach Kerry Clark (brother of former Toronto Maple Leafs captain Wendel Clark) used his connections across Canada, and a handsome budget from the Crees, to acquire the best players under 21 he could find.
By season four, Perry Young, the Pride of OCN, was one of those players. He came to training camp with added strength and speed -- and pressure. When he did not get as much ice time as other players, local fans, including his uncle Danny, who was on the team's board of directors, demanded to know why. Clark told the board that Perry routinely arrived late for practice, sometimes still drunk from the night before.
Then, a couple of months into the season, Perry simply stopped showing up.
Clark struck his name from the roster, and was called a "racist" to his face at a community meeting. But most people supported him. They liked the championship banners draped over centre ice -- it gives their kids something to dream about, they said. They also liked being the centre of Manitoba hockey's attention, and they enjoyed driving to distant places such as Winkler and watching their team whip the opposition.
Perhaps most of all, they liked the idea that townspeople were driving to the reserve for entertainment, and paying for it. Last year, the arena's concession stand alone contributed almost $50,000 to OCN minor hockey teams, which travelled to Long Island, N.Y., and British Columbia and this winter plans to go to Sweden.
In time, Perry Young faded from view and the team did not hear much about him until the summer of 2000, when his girlfriend had a baby boy. She then kicked him out of their house, telling him to sober up before he could move back.
That September, while on a binge, Perry pushed his way into the house, took a carving knife from the kitchen and, in front of his girlfriend and baby, stabbed himself five times in the heart. His mother, Marlene, reached the scene within minutes, but he was already gone.
To this day, she believes that the hockey team bears some responsibility for her son's suicide. She feels that its emphasis on winning has overshadowed the many social problems that native kids often carry. If Perry drank, it was because he had to carry the expectations of a community, she says.
"They did say local boys break the rules, come late. I've heard people say it about our kids: 'They're drunks. They're lazy. They're no good,' " Marlene says. "Who are they to judge that these [non-native] Blizzard don't break the rules? They turn around and treat them better than our kids."
So now she refuses to let her eldest son, Mike, try out for the Blizzard (he plays for the Southeast Blades, the province's only other junior native team), and talks about leaving the community so that her youngest, 10-year-old Garrett, can play elsewhere.
The day after
Even so, the coach is in a good mood, joking about what southern Manitoba's Mennonites. "Be careful," he warns the players, who seem more interested in a copy of Playboy. "I hear the Winkler fans will throw Bibles at you."
For the rest of the journey, there is little to do but watch videos and play Survivor trivia. Other than race, there is not much to distinguish them, as they sit shirtless so they can display their pecs and abs. They are all 16 to 20, and most have dyed their hair blond -- but not Steve MacIntyre, a Saskatchewan farm boy, and Ryan Braun, from a remote northern Cree reserve. They have shaved their heads.
The players like to say they stay as one, on the ice or off. Even the natives prefer to have billets across the river in The Pas, where houses typically are less crowded than on the reserve. But there are subtle differences, which the native players quietly say is why their numbers are so few.
The team's top Cree scorer, Jamie Muswagon from Cross Lake, about 300 kilometres northeast of The Pas, says he and the other native players like to go hunting and ice fishing together. They don't need a licence, for one thing, and out in the wild, they can talk freely about the isolation that shaped their upbringing in hockey.
Muswagon first left home to play in Brandon, west of Winnipeg, but at 16 he felt so alienated that he went back to Cross Lake every other weekend. Many native hockey careers end at the midget level because leaving a close-knit community proves too painful.
The native players also talk about Perry, but only a little. They agree that he broke the team rules. He missed practices. He drank heavily. Some of them understand why, but that does not mean they want to pay a price on the ice because of it. "Some of our players don't buy into the 'program' -- the drinking, the after-hours stuff," says Jim Smith, the team's early backer. "Sometimes the youth, they may have the talent, but not all that it takes to be a hockey player."
But slowly, he believes, the Blizzard's discipline is rubbing off on a younger generation. "They're starting to understand hockey is not just a sport, it's a lifestyle, the development of a human being."
Others are not so sure, not when so many aboriginal players must struggle while growing up on remote and often socially dysfunctional reserves. Even athletes face the same stigmas, says former team manager Derek Fontaine, who played professional hockey. "The thing that pisses me off," he says, "is that, once a native kid has a couple of beers, he is given that stereotype: He's a boozer."
Fontaine now manages the Southeast Blades, which last season carried 14 native players as well as Perry Young's brother, Mike, but had the worst record in the league, just seven wins in 64 games.
As the Blizzard bus passes through the first scattered settlements between Manitoba's big lakes, and another action-thriller video begins, a few players at the back eat potato chips and talk about their own struggles with hockey off the ice.
Braun, a brick-like forward from the hamlet of Wabowden, northeast of The Pas, had to drive with his father 100 kilometres every day to his midget team's practice and games in Thompson. Most of his friends couldn't count on a parent to make the same trip. Finally, his own parents tired of the driving, and paid $400 a month to billet him with a Thompson family, on top of the $1,300 a year for equipment and arena fees.
Tootoo, the Inuit team captain from the Northwest Territories, faced a greater challenge while learning to play in Rankin Inlet. The town had an arena, but not enough players to form two teams, so everyone played pickup hockey. Tootoo didn't learn a set position until he moved to Thompson at 16, and the coach benched him for chasing the puck all over the ice.
He made the transition well enough to lead the league in scoring, but he knows how many people feel. "I kept hearing things like, 'You guys aren't going to make it.' There's a lot of 'downs' in native communities -- drugs, alcohol."
But he does not despair for aboriginal kids -- they just have to be tougher, he says, in body and spirit. He has not forgotten what his father told both him and his brother, Jordan, who plays for the Brandon Wheat Kings: that hockey could be their ticket out of Rankin Inlet.
"I have no respect for those kids who just give up," he says. "I see those guys when I go home for the summer and they're doing nothing. If you give up, you'll be a nobody."
The bus reaches
Until then, coach Clark does not want any more distractions. He fears that his players will buckle under the pressure of Winkler, whose rich soil produces more than an abundance of grain. The farming town is home to a big new Mennonite church, pleasant subdivisions and a sprawling recreation park with its own water slide. Winkler and The Pas could be in different provinces.
Clark jokes again about the prosperous Mennonites as the bus turns into the hotel, but then turns serious. The game "has nothing to do with race," he says. "It has everything to do with who you are. I look at it as I'm trying to coach hockey, not coach colour. There's only one way to pass a puck. There isn't a white way of passing."
He is an outsider, but this view seems to be gaining acceptance in the two communities his hockey team has brought together. Once angry and segregated, they are carefully seeking out new ways to work together. For example, in summer, OCN dancers perform at the rodeo put on by Kelsey, the rural municipality that surrounds the reserve and The Pas. Kelsey's residents are mostly non-native farmers, but they have hired the reserve to provide firefighting services, while the reserve is paying for half of a new Anglican-run homeless program in The Pas.
Together, the town, reserve and Kelsey also put together a successful bid for the 2002 Manitoba winter games, and are now lobbying for a bigger regional health centre. Almost without fail, the mayor, the chief and the reeve show up at each other's events. The chief refers to Hopper as "our mayor," and Hopper gives visitors lapel pins both for his town and OCN.
The co-operation goes beyond public relations. When rural teens mugged some natives in The Pas and declared themselves to be a gang called "White Power," the heads of the three communities met the kids (who had been tracked down by the RCMP) and their parents to discuss what had happened. No charges were laid. White Power has not been heard from since.
This once-improbable racial unity appears in Winkler when the Blizzard arrive for the game. Half of the spacious new arena, with its orderly stands and well-stocked snack bar, is filled with well-dressed local people. But on the other side, behind the visiting team's bench, there must be 700 raucous OCN fans, with their obnoxious air horns and vulgar chants.
Against the crisply painted white stands, their dark and light faces resemble a northern patchwork; their denim jackets and cowboy hats an alien costume in the pristine south; their melding of Cree and English insults a bizarre dialect. By contrast, the most radical offering from the Winkler side comes before the game, with an electric guitar version of O Canada.
The action begins and Winkler takes the lead, but the Blizzard fans do not let up. "Legace: You're a LOSER!" they shout at the goalie, whose standing-room-only hometown crowd can muster only a few prep-school cheers in return.
"Go white go!" the Winkler crowd shouts, referring to the colour of their players' jerseys, not their skin, as one by one the fleet-footed Flyers are hammered into the boards.
By the third period, the Blizzard's awesome hitting power has filed down the Flyers like a jagged piece of metal. OCN ties the game, and then, a few minutes into overtime, Jamie Muswagon, the star scorer from Cross Lake, puts it away.
The home crowd turns silent and leaves, trying to ignore the many hues on the other side blowing horns and waving banners.
The next evening,
After just five years in business, the Blizzard have won their third Manitoba title. They go on to lose to Saskatchewan's champions, the Weyburn Red Wings, in the qualifying round for the national championship tournament. But not without a fight. About 400 OCN hundred fans, including a group that chartered three small airplanes, travelled to southern Saskatchewan for the series, which ends four games to two.
But by winning the three consecutive provincial titles, the OCN did what no Manitoba team has done since the 1970s -- since before Perry Young was born, since the days when two nations were segregated in The Pas cinema, since the time of Helen Betty Osborne.
Once an easy target for racists, the Cree Nation is now home to a feared champion. They are on top of their province, and want to show it in a new way.
After the season, Kerry Clark quit to take a job in the Western Hockey League. The Blizzard promptly recruited a new coach, Glen Watson, from the WHL and told him to win the championship yet again. He will have to do so without Terence Tootoo, who has graduated from the junior ranks, turned pro and gone even farther south to the Roanoke Express of the East Coast Hockey League.
But remarkably the Blizzard's Cree stars all turned down offers to move to stronger leagues. They prefer to stay with a native-owned team, playing on native land, most likely dreaming of yet another title. It is hardly an impossible dream, considering that this season the team is off to the best start in its history -- 20 wins and just one loss going into Friday night's game against the Dauphin Kings.
The fans had nothing less in mind when they packed the gravel parking lot outside the Lathlin arena for a tailgate party before the season opener. As barbecues crackled, and beer flowed freely, people from The Pas and OCN mingled as if there had never been a divide between them -- as if there were no Saskatchewan River separating one community from the other.
The mayor was there, along with the chief, and on the bridge over the river a long line of cars travelling from the town to the reserve, to an arena both call their own.