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Toronto city staff proposal takes aim at the appropriation of Indigenous names and symbols in city sports facilities
Aug. 13, 2021

Non-Indigenous sports teams using Blackhawks, Braves and other appropriated names and symbols would be unwelcome at City of Toronto fields and rinks under a city staff proposal.

The attempt to end the harmful stereotypes is part of a North American trend that has seen many teams ditch names, logos and mascots. Others, such as the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks, are clinging to Indigenous-themed branding.

There doesn’t appear to be a local equivalent to Chicago, however: two Toronto amateur leagues identified by city staff for problematic names have already rebranded after seeing the result of a human rights complaint in Mississauga.

“It’s tough getting rid of an Original Six name and the logo that goes with it,” says Willowdale Hockey Club volunteer Carol Mallett, acknowledging some resistance to changing the rep team’s name from Blackhawks to just Hawks.

Willowdale licensed use of the Blackhawks name and red jerseys with the team logo -- a man wearing a feathered headdress and face paint -- from 1981 to 2021. Competitive league kids aged seven to 17 wore the jersey.

Once popular among Ontario teams, the uniform in recent years saw a young Willowdale player sent home from school and some opposing players refuse to play rivals appropriating Indigenous culture, Mallett says.

She says she told fellow league officials: “We have 40 years borrowing these symbols, we’re going to give them back and we’re going to look forward to the next 40 years being more respectful.”

Children being taught respect for First Nations, M├ętis and Inuit traditions at school then went to a rink sending a different message, she says.

“Seven-year-old kids are pretty aware and the ones coming into the club now are not going to be faced with Indigenous symbols on their jerseys.” Instead, players this coming season will sport a fierce red hawk with outstretched wings.

The High Park Little League Braves became simply High Park Little League about four years ago, says league president Ken Sherbanowski.

Like Willowdale hockey officials, leaders of the 57-year-old west-end baseball tradition watched an Indigenous hockey dad’s human rights complaint that racist, stereotypical depictions were being allowed on Mississauga city property.

A 2018 settlement saw Mississauga agree to remove Indigenous-themed mascots, symbols, names and imagery from all its athletic facilities.

The commission urged Ontario municipalities to consult their Indigenous communities regarding use of Indigenous logos and names on city property.

High Park “decided to be proactive rather than reactive,” Sherbanowski says, noting the Braves was not an original name, having replaced an earlier moniker that referenced the Lions service club.

“We just decided as a league to do it on our own and have some control,” he says, adding City of Toronto officials who oversee permits for use of city baseball diamonds had raised the Braves name as a potential concern.

“There was some pushback from the old-timers,” about the change, he says, “but after the first year nobody cared.”

Earlier this week, the city’s Aboriginal affairs committee received a staff proposal that applications to rent city facilities include: “To promote a positive and inclusive experience in City of Toronto facilities and to protect the dignity and well-being of Indigenous communities, the City of Toronto prohibits the display of any Indigenous-themed images or names by non-Indigenous user groups, and discourages the display of Indigenous-themed names or images on team uniforms and personal belongings by non-Indigenous users.”

City council has final say on that plus staff plans for “an overarching policy on the use of Indigenous names and images in the forthcoming Reconciliation Action Plan,” under calls to action in Truth and Reconciliation Commission reports.

Ontario’s Human Rights Commission last month followed up a 2019 letter on the issue to about 40 municipalities with more information and a request for updates on local progress.

Responses so far indicate about 14 teams across Ontario have changed names and logos, or are in the process of doing so, says Jeff Poirier, director of the commission’s policy branch.

They include minor hockey’s Newmarket Redmen becoming the Renegades and the Sarnia Braves baseball team becoming the Brigade.

The commission was told two other teams decided to keep names and logos after receiving support from local Indigenous communities, Poirier said, adding the commission is not concerned with Indigenous teams using their symbols.

“This is not about what Indigenous organizations are doing for themselves; this is about concerns about non-Indigenous organizations appropriating names and images,” he says.

Toronto’s proposal is the kind of policy approach to the issue that the commission is hoping to see from other municipalities, rather than just case-by-case approaches, he says.

Bradley Gallant, the man of Mi’kmaq descent who launched the human rights complaint arguing his hockey-playing daughter had the right to not be confronted with racist, stereotypical images, says change has taken too long.

“It is a little late to ease my family’s experience with hockey, a sport we no longer enjoy, but maybe others may benefit from the dignity that has been denied for far too long,” he says.

“The City of Toronto did take down Humber Valley Braves banners, with the help of the Humber Valley Sharks, in 2019 while my daughter continued to play with boys in the attempt to find an inclusive space in hockey,” he says.

But even after Mississauga settled his complaint, Gallant adds, “she had to play the Willowdale Blackhawks in the GTHL in 2018 and 2019.”