It should come as little surprise that the Shawinigan Cataractes – a team with a chief logo and a caricature mascot named Thomas Hawk (aka Tomahawk) – would take yet another insensitive misstep.
Their latest in cultural appropriation comes in the form of an ill-guided marketing campaign which features three players: captain Anthony Beauvillier, Alexis D’Aoust and Samuel Girard – none of whom identify as First Nations - dressed up in the stereotypical warrior motif complete with war paint and braided hair with beads and feathers in team colours.
It’s stunning to think someone with the Quebec league team thought this was a good idea.
The slogan for the campaign is the equally tone deaf: “My History. My Colours”
Former Halifax Mooseheads captain Trey Lewis, a Mi'kmaq from the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick, can’t understand how anyone with the team thought this would be a positive marketing tool. He said it might have been different if the players were themselves First Nations or if the team was on or, at very least, associated with one of the reserves in the area.
“It’s disrespectful,” Lewis said. “To be marketing a team with First Nations imagery, I think they could have come up with a better idea to help promote their hockey team.
“In this day and age you have music festivals like Osheaga and Tomorrowland that are banning people from wearing Native American headdresses because it’s offensive.”
The 22-year-old who played in parts of five seasons with the Mooseheads, is no stranger to racism in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. During his tenure in the league he faced slurs about his First Nations heritage.
“I definitely – a couple times - faced some racism throughout my days in the (QMJHL),” said Lewis. “It’s still very surprising that the organization itself would resort to that type of marketing. I just didn’t think that someone up the ladder (on the team) would think that’s a good idea. It’s different when you face it on the ice and it’s in the heat of the moment; stuff like that I can kind of understand. When you sit down and put a plan together for marketing and you come up with that idea, it’s just really surprising.”
A voicemail left on the cellphone of Shawinigan’s director of marketing and communications, Tommy Tremblay, was not returned.
QMJHL director of communications, Photi Sotiropoulos, says the league had no prior knowledge of the team’s new marketing campaign.
“The league did not endorse nor was consulted on the Shawinigan Cataractes branding,” he said. “This was solely a team initiative.”
This isn’t the first time a team in the Canadian Hockey League has come under fire for using offensive images. The Western Hockey League’s Moose Jaw Warriors were criticized for wearing throwback jerseys featuring an Aboriginal caricature wielding a tomahawk in one hand and a hockey stick in the other. The Prince Albert Raiders were forced to nix their throwbacks featuring a cartoonish Arab man holding a scimitar after much public outcry.
The debate has raged for years about the NFL’s team in Washington using the nickname “Redskins” and more recently the NCAA imposed sanctions on teams using tribal logos and nicknames. This eventually prompted the University of North Dakota to drop its “Fighting Sioux” moniker in 2012 after years of legal wrangling.
It’s hard to believe given all the recent debate over the issue, that the Cataractes would move to embrace what everyone else is running away from publicly.
“When you’re promoting it in a French community without anyone from the First Nations in the pictures it’s a different story,” said Lewis, who is in his second year at St. Francis Xavier University. “It comes off as almost mocking.”
Chad Denny, a second round pick of the Atlanta Thrashers, who played for four seasons with the QMJHL’s Lewiston Maineiacs, wonders why the team didn’t reach out to the First Nations.
“It’s like an insult and it’s inappropriate,” said Denny, a Mi'kmaq from the Eskasoni First Nation in Nova Scotia. “Why don’t they ask the First Nations communities that are near there? They’ve got two big Mohawk reserves not too far from Shawinigan, you’ve got Kahnawake there – not too far away.
“They’re not First Nations so, to be honest with you, I don’t know why they’re using it.”
In June, Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, whose mother Lynda is a former chief of the Ulkatcho First Nation in British Columbia, won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best netminder. At the awards show in Las Vegas, he took the opportunity to speak directly to First Nations kids.
“I would like to take a moment to encourage First Nations youth,” said Price in his acceptance speech. “A lot of people would say it’s very improbable that I would make it to this point in my life. I made it here because I wasn’t discouraged; you know I worked hard to get here. I took advantage of every opportunity that I had and I would really like to encourage First Nations youth to be leaders in their communities. Be proud of your heritage and don’t be discouraged from the improbable.”
It was an important reminder that hockey has the ability to become a positive force in the lives of many children – particularly those growing up on reserves.
Lewis has seen that kind of impact first hand, when he took the QMJHL’s President's Cup and Memorial Cup back home to Elsipogtog. It was there that he was celebrated and given a special gift from the band council. It was an important moment for Lewis, considering how much his community had supported him throughout his hockey career.
He sees the marketing campaign in Shawinigan as helping impede the progress people like Price are making in the hockey community.
“Someone like Carey Price is going to motivate so many First Nations youth,” said Lewis. “But then it’s a step backwards for Shawinigan to go and try to abuse First Nations looks to promote their hockey team. They’re people that aren’t even First Nations with a team that’s not on a reserve. It’s ludicrous.”