By Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG – A lawyer representing some Indigenous hockey teams in Manitoba argued in court Wednesday that all the “white teams” got together and formed a new Junior B league which excludes First Nations.
All of the teams were part of the Keystone Junior Hockey League until May when five teams left to create the Capital Region League.
“White teams quietly got together and removed themselves leaving behind the First Nations teams,” lawyer Jamie Kagan told court.
The First Nations teams complained. A Hockey Manitoba tribunal ruled that former KJHL players would need a release to play in the new league and pay a $500 fee. The decision was to protect the KJHL from a mass exodus of players, which Kagan argued would spell the end of the league.
But that didn’t happen before the new league hit the ice in October.
The Peguis, Norway House Cree, Opaskwayak Cree, Fisher River Cree and Cross Lake First Nations filed a statement of claim in October against Hockey Manitoba, the Manitoba Amateur Hockey Association, the new league and the five teams in it.
Kagan is asking the judge for an injunction pending a trial. The injunction would expire at the end of the 2018-19 season.
Bill Bowles, a lawyer representing the Capital Region League, said if the injunction is granted, about 100 players in the new league won’t be able to play for the season because there isn’t space on KJHL teams and it’s unlikely new teams could be formed in time.
He told court the new league was created because of safety concerns about long drives on the highway. He said it had nothing to do with racism and cautioned Kagan against making that suggestion.
The First Nations could appeal the decision through Hockey Manitoba and the court does not need to have a role in “shutting down a hockey league,” Bowles added.
“They are asking you to stop 100 kids from playing hockey.”
The judge is to deliver a decision on the injunction on Friday.
Outside the courthouse, Peguis First Nation Chief Glenn Hudson said the intent isn’t to stop any kids from playing, but the split of the came on racial lines and has put the future of the First Nations teams in jeopardy.
“It’s blatant racism … in terms of segregating our First Nation teams and non-First-Nation teams. I think that’s something we see clearly and it’s evident,” he said.
There are four remaining teams in the KJHL and now only a handful of players often show up to games because they are feeling discouraged, Hudson said.
Hockey Manitoba lawyer Robert Sokalski agreed that the First Nations have not exhausted their options for appeal. He suggested they are trying to pressure Hockey Manitoba to combine the leagues again.
“They embark on a power play and their power play is court proceedings,” he said.
Kagan said the KJHL had been a successful league with teams from across the province since it was formed in 1977.
The Peguis Juniors were league champions the last three years and the First Nation recently built a multimillion-dollar facility.
The First Nations also contributed funds to bring southern teams in for games, Kagan said.
“If this was about money we wouldn’t be here,” he said. “(They) just don’t want to play the First Nations teams.”
The new league’s actions are against the spirit of reconciliation, he suggested.
Kagan also dismissed the new league’s explanation that it was formed because parents were concerned about highway safety after 16 people were killed and 13 were injured in the Humboldt Broncos bus crash.
Kagan said it is a shorter drive to Peguis First Nation for many of the hockey teams in the Capital Region League.