The coach of the North Shore Eagles Under 15s lacrosse team has spoken out about a racist incident he says took place at a game in Richmond earlier this week, hoping that raising awareness will encourage healing.
Tewanee Joseph, a Squamish Nation member of Maori decent, said he was left “angry” and “astonished” on Oct. 5 to learn that his wife, Rae-Ann, had overheard a parent in the crowd of a game between the Eagles and Richmond/Vancouver at Minoru Oval refer to their players as “Chiefs.”
Joseph, who was coaching at the time, said Rae-Ann was sitting two or three metres away from a group drinking beer when she heard someone make the reference, just before the game started.
“The individual that said it, didn't yell it, but he said it right by my wife,” he said. “It made her feel totally uncomfortable.
“There really is no place for racist comments. Whether these things are said quietly or loudly, there is no place in this country for anybody that makes any comments like that.”
He said his wife witnessed the group continue to drink beers and make comments about the game and players’ appearance, including making fun of a player’s height. Rae-Ann eventually moved away from the crowd because she was filming the game.
Having experienced racism in the sport himself over the years, Joseph said he had spent a lot of his life promoting inclusivity.
“It made me feel really angry and upset because my life's work is around inclusivity,” he said, adding that he worked on the Olympic and Paralympic Games as the Four Host First Nation’s CEO.
“Words count. Words have meaning. And words like that can travel and keep with people for the rest of their lives.
“We need to be respectful of all cultures, of all people.”
However, other parents at the game have commented on social media that “no such remarks were made.”
“As one of the parents sitting below this group, I can assure you no such remarks were made,” wrote @___travis73___ on Instagram.
“Something was misheard and it's very disappointing that you would paint the team in this light based on something that was misheard. There is no denying racism is a sickness that needs to be stamped out, but I can assure you that it didn't occur in this instance.”
Another spectator at the game also responded that they did not hear the comment.
“I was there too watching the game and heard no such remarks,” @Instaseanpreid66 wrote on Instagram. “It is sad that a discussion wasn't had to clarify what was heard and what was said at the time of the accusation.
“Now it's labelled as an offence regardless if one happened or not.”
Joseph said he believed what his wife said she heard to be true. He said he shared the incident on social media to help generate conversations that would inspire healing.
He added that more education and cultural awareness training about First Nations history and the game of lacrosse was the way forward.
“Lacrosse is a medicine game,” he said. "It comes from the Creator and it's a gift to all people. So, there should be cultural awareness training prior to every box and field lacrosse season, so people understand where the game comes from.
“When people see this, hopefully, what it does is spark the ability to have discussions about what we should do, and not just have policies that say zero tolerance with no definition or no accountability."
On Twitter, Joseph wrote that “Change is slow, but we need more people to take action.”
“Let’s stand together!”
'I'd stand up for and with the North Shore Eagles any day'
After Joseph shared his message on Twitter and Instagram, North Shore community members and others in the education and sports industry came out in support.
Three-time Olympic gold medallist rower Marnie McBean, who was Chef de Mission for Team Canada in the 2020 games, was shocked by the careless comments.
“I'm so sorry that this comes as a shock to me - (really? still? What are they teaching their kids?) ... and comes as yet another unacceptable act by thoughtless (careless) people to you Tewanee,” she wrote on Twitter.
“I'd stand up for and with the North Shore Eagles any day.”
Brad Baker, North Vancouver School District principal, was one member of the Squamish Nation who reached out to Joseph, saying: “I stand with you.”
“As we know, racism exists through blatant actions or microaggressions,” he wrote on Twitter.
“Either way it is hurtful and damaging. Education of parents/adults needs to be part of the healing journey that we are on towards truth and reconciliation. #EndRacism.”
Rob Colombo, who is a zone president for BC School Sports, president of the Port Coquitlam Sports Alliance, and acting vice principal for Riverside Secondary School, said he would be quick to respond if he witnessed this behaviour.
“As part of the Lower Mainland U15 lax community if I heard any parents speaking this way, I would be the first to call it out,” he wrote on Twitter.
Harold Nahanee, a fellow Squamish Nation member who has played lacrosse with Joseph in the past, also responded, saying he was “sad to hear this, bro.”
“We grew up with this while we played a sport that was a gift from the Creator,” he wrote on Twitter.
“Until humans can learn from our people it will always be this way, sad but true.”
Both the Richmond and Vancouver Lacrosse Club presidents have been contacted for comment.
Joseph said he had reached out to North Shore Minor League Lacrosse president Shannon Webber, who will be addressing the issue with the Pacific Club Field Lacrosse League.
“There should be zero tolerance for actions like this," he said.
Elisia Seeber is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.