Chapter 10 The Race Card

There is no way to sugar coat this: Ontario lacrosse has a race problem.

Practically no one in the OLA wants to talk about this very touchy subject. Besides, Ontario lacrosse includes teams from First Nations, how could it possibly have a race problem? I can assure you, I have had candid conversations with many First Nations people on this subject, and there is no doubt in my mind that their experiences – and mine – indicate that not only is there a problem, but it’s not a new problem. If there wasn’t a problem, then why have a harassment and discrimination policy? Just in case?

Quite a few years ago, I recall the astounding response from the OLA President regarding a written complaint sent to him regarding the very bigoted comments of a midget player, kicked out of a Brampton tournament game where his opponents were Six Nations. The player exited the floor while loudly making offensive racial comments within earshot of several small Indigenous children who were playing in the stands. Unless it was documented by the referees, the President wrote back, there is nothing we can do and besides, this sort of thing has been going on in lacrosse as far back as he could remember. And nothing was ever done.

You know, if we don’t talk about it, perhaps we can convince ourselves it doesn’t exist. The verbal equivalent of pulling the blanket over our heads to hide from monsters. Maybe that works if you are not on the receiving end.

“Taken together, “the interlocking workings of power that secure the enduring myth of Canada’s benign racial history and contemporary racial equality contribute to a Canadian (sporting) culture in which discussions of race are deemed unnecessary. Yet this stance is problematic amidst Canada’s changing social landscape.” (Joseph, Darnell, & Nakamura, 2012, p. 17)

Over the past few years the OLA staff and Board of Director have assembled some impressive and progressive policies, interestingly enough, some of which address the very beefs I had with the system as outlined earlier in this blog. This leads me to believe that someone is listening, which is good, but still much too passive to make an impact on the very real problem that exists. In my experience, the OLA plays this passive-aggressive response very well, but it is going to eventually back-fire on them, and reflect badly on Ontario lacrosse as a whole – if it hasn’t already.

The OLA’s recent experience with Kevin Johnston is a prime example. A perfect opportunity for the OLA to publicly rebuke what Johnston stood for, to clear the air about such people, to highlight their principles and policies. Alas, they said nothing. And perhaps this was for legal reasons, although I don’t buy that, especially if the court case was over. The OLA knows how to make press releases. Or was the real issue not wanting to highlight the fact that a guy like Johnston was running a lacrosse program in one of their clubs and absolutely no one knew about his views? Either way, I believe self-interest trumped the greater good and again, no discussion. Keep quiet about it, and it will go away. Shhhh…

Don’t misunderstand me here, I am not suggesting that ‘lacrosse people’ are racist by default, nor am I saying that any particular group or any particular person is a bigot or a racist. That is the furthest thing from the truth. The racial problem with lacrosse is entrenched and systemic, meaning that the social and governance structures of lacrosse in current use were built in less enlightened times by less enlightened people. That structure amplifies bigotry and prejudice whether one is conscious of it or not. I have seen this in action and I am not the only one; it’s real. Burying one’s head in the sand will not solve the problem. Progressive policies make for nice corporate citizenship, looks good on funding requests; but unless that policy includes measures to be enforceable on everyone in the OLA, including one’s own friends on the OLA Board of Directors, they are empty gestures to accompany the deafening silence.

And silence means approval.

A cautionary tale, hopefully mangled enough to protect the innocent, but it absolutely illustrates why we need to start talking. Kevin Johnston, in fact, comes by it honestly.
When I was a teenager working at Indian Affairs, one day I met a lovely, blonde and blue-eye young woman. As we got to chatting she mentioned that she was from Kahnawake, and was a Mohawk with Indian status. No way, I protested, unsure about how to explain the grounds of my disbelief. It was moot however, when she produced her Indian status card. How could this be, I thought, all the Mohawks in my family had black hair and brown eyes. She didn’t look like an Indian.

That was the exact moment I began to confront the racialized thinking that had been built up in my own mind over the previous 19 years of life including how the Indian Act, with its blood quantum, frames Indigenous people in a racial, rather than ethnic, context. It says ‘First Nations’ not ‘First Brown Skin Peoples.’ Alas, even the modernized nomenclature is not strong enough to dislodge those old prejudices of race; it will take more than mere noun play to resolve. (Also, we don’t say “Indian” anymore, at least not in polite company.)

The point of this is that it was, at least back then, fairly standard to see people in terms of race. Racialization was an ingrained part of Canadian culture. As long as you didn’t (overtly) discriminate, what’s the problem? It’s just a simple way of distinguishing people from one another. No harm intended, it was the same for everyone.

Some still choose to be like that today, including others, more to the extreme, who make value judgments of people based on race, racial attributes or ethnicity. Of the range of activities that such extreme types participate in, lacrosse is most certainly one of them. Everyone knows a few. As long as we are moderate about it, no foul intended.

“There is a dominant understanding of Canada as ‘colour-blind’ or ‘racism-free’, especially as Canada is constructed in opposition to the United States. State-sponsored and media promoted national imaginings use discourses of multiculturalism and liberal tolerance to hide the pernicious effects of ongoing discrimination. In reality, Canada’s patriarchal, elitist, and Euro-centric histories continue to have ramifications for racialized people in the present day (Thobani, 2007; Bannerji, 2000). At the same time, there is also mainstream support for the concept of sport as a ‘level playing field’ or a ‘fair domain,’ where the fastest, strongest, and most talented succeed. Sport is also imagined as ‘colour-blind’ or ‘racism free’, but in reality, sport cultures are rife with racialized constructions of athletes and hierarchies.” (Joseph, 2014, pg. 7)

Racialized construction of anything is rather normalized in Canada still, so it is no surprise Janelle Joseph would connect it all together under the category of sport. However, what are the sporting bodies doing to address and counteract this racialized social structure? A quick review shows that while some Ontario sports like soccer, basketball, football, and perhaps baseball, may struggle with racism from time to time, but they have active components in their organizations to at least continue the discussion. Hockey is currently in a bit of a struggle, it’s been in the news in recent years, but at least they are talking.  For Ontario lacrosse there is only silence.  Again, nice policies, but other than that, nothing. What is the reason for that, any guesses?

If we see First Nations or Indigenous participation as the exception to the rule, understandably due to the ancient and historical connection to lacrosse, what are we left with when we remove them from mix? Does the participation rate of lacrosse reflect the general demographic of the communities in which it is played? Surprisingly, yes, in smaller or rural communities, the demographics do align. However, the big, glaring exception to this are the large urban centres, particularly the GTA.

One has to ask, why is lacrosse still such a niche sport when there is so much obvious appeal to the game? For example, why do the demographics of lacrosse in the GTA not reflect the demographics of the GTA?

“The Toronto CMA was home to 3,011,905 people identifying as visible minorities or 51.4% of its population, the first census above the 50% mark. This represented 77.5% of Ontario’s total visible minority population.”

You can connect it all together even if you are painfully reluctant to do so: the demographics change, there is a significant increase in people and visible minorities in the GTA, but minor lacrosse association memberships in the GTA are dropping. Why is that?

In my mind, there is only one way to correct the imbalances derived from the way in which lacrosse is currently organized and that will require a significant and measured effort towards promotion and recruitment of a diverse membership. Once this is underway, then allow the diverse membership to begin to construct new social and governance structures reflective of that diversity. All of this has to begin in the GTA immediately, but where does one start?

I recall a conversation with a lacrosse colleague not too long ago, where I complained about the lack of diversity in the promotion of lacrosse in a particular GTA city. He pointed out that lacrosse couldn’t even properly promote the game to “white people, never mind non-white people.” I had to concede he was right about that.

I have said on many occasions that lacrosse people are the absolute best people at marketing the game to other lacrosse people, but when it comes to marketing the game to non-lacrosse people, when it comes to recruitment outside of our little niche community, or outreach into racialized communities, well, the results speak for themselves. So why doesn’t lacrosse make a better effort? Is it because the people in charge aren’t interested in promoting the game to the wider, more diverse community? Is there a lack of leadership in the administrator positions? Is there a lack of know-how?

Putting aside the social benefits of having diversity entrenched in lacrosse, I am surprised that more people haven’t realized the economic upside to pushing for diversity in Ontario lacrosse and increasing the numbers of participants. How many people do we know that are trying to scrape a living from lacrosse? Some people do ok, but the opportunities are severely restricted. That is the nature of a sputtering niche sport I suppose, but can you imagine what happens when you access the wealth of that other 51% of the population in the GTA? We are not talking a few thousand people here; we are talking millions. In fact, a smart administrator would see how to access that wealth in such a way as to supplement the costs of the sport for others in low-income situations. Football, with expensive equipment, has taken care of that issue already, why not lacrosse?

The point here is not to develop a marketing plan for Ontario lacrosse. Besides, before that happens, an atmosphere conducive to such targeted marketing must exist first. It is one thing to toss around ideas and maybe come up with some policies that mention diversity, but a whole other thing to provide planning for a process that results in a truly inclusive environment. Once inclusion is evident, then and only then, will Ontario lacrosse be able to change its structure to reflect a more diverse membership.

Who is going to do this? Well, the previous post makes it plain that the efforts on the ground are up to the local minor club and that is where the greatest part of the effort must be done. If the local club isn’t interested in making the effort nothing will change. The OLA, however, have a big part to play, especially in the leadership and resourcing roles, but this is where it gets tricky.

Aside from the office administration staff, who provides the direction for any of the leadership efforts at the OLA level? Is there a mechanism available to the membership that can push the OLA to act in a certain way, to make an effort towards this or that, to take a specific role in the overall growth of lacrosse in the province? Well, despite the niceties of their mandate, the answer is no. The OLA Board of Directors create their own priorities, set their own agenda, and follow their own timetables. In addition, when it comes time to nominate and elect members to administrative positions with the OLA and member clubs, that lack of diversity is also reflected. But hey, pay your $500 team fee and vote – that’s how democracy works.

Perhaps you might be seeing how the current structure could be problematic when it comes to change. A self-directing, self-contained structure that maintains a homogenous membership, the OLA is susceptible to not only preserving the status quo at all costs, but being powerless to stop things from getting entrenched further. Lacrosse won’t die in Ontario, it will still sputter along like it has for the past 100 years.

Hopefully by this time the Grassroots Game has given you a glimpse into the vulnerability caused by the condition whereby the OLA or local minor club is accountable only to a small cadre. You can create all kinds of wonderful policies, but unless accountability to the membership-at-large is built into the plan, there is no way to measure whether any effort is worthwhile.

If the effort to grow along with the community is not worthwhile, another century of a sputtering niche sport is on the horizon.

The Hurdle to Success – Janelle Joseph, PhD

2016 CENSUS HIGHLIGHTS: Factsheet 9, Ontario Ministry of Finance, 2017

Bersin by Deloitte defines “diversity” as the variety of people and ideas within a company. Organisations often define the diversity of their people according to unique and / or legally protected differences, such as race, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, maternity status, and other “nonvisible” qualities and backgrounds.  – Diversity and Inclusion in Canada The Current State

Bersin by Deloitte defines “inclusion” as creating an environment in which people feel involved, respected, valued, and connected—and to which individuals bring their “authentic” selves (their ideas, backgrounds, and perspectives) to their work with colleagues and customers. – Diversity and Inclusion in Canada The Current State

Next: Chapter 11 Second Rate Part I