Courtesy Montreal Canadiens
On a special night to honour all Indigenous Peoples, Kahnawake took centre stage.
Kahnawa’kehró:non Teiowí:sonte Tommy Deer’s artwork on an orange Habs’ warm-up jersey, including the Two Row Wampum belt bookending the Montreal Canadiens’ logo, was front and centre at the Bell Centre on Saturday.
The special orange t-shirts and hoodies that emulated the Habs’ warm-up jerseys didn’t even make it to game time, selling out before puck drop, as a smattering of Onkwehón:we wearing them in the crowd could be seen from the press box.
“When I found my seats and saw that my design was projected onto the ice and on the jumbotron, I started to realize the scope of this project,” Deer told The Eastern Door. “And to see people cheering whenever they showed Onkwehón:we infographics on the jumbotron, was pretty overwhelming.”
His design, which he previously talked about last week in The Eastern Door, also had the Silver Covenant Chain and a flint arrowhead, to underline the presence in the Montreal area of Kanien’kehá:ka, The People of the Flint.
“The response has been all positive from people I know,” he added. “Even from Boston fans, who liked the design, but vowed to never wear it, ha ha!”
Deer’s last hockey game was at least 20 years ago.
“Live sports are always more exciting than watching on television, but this game in particular turned out to be very exciting,” he said.
“I think the objective of educating/reminding our neighbours of who we are, whose land they occupy, and the desired basis of our relationship – was fulfilled.”
Habs’ goalie Jake Allen took on a 51-shot Leafs onslaught and came out with a slick come from behind 4-2 win.
As part of the inaugural Indigenous Celebration Night, Indigenous media were also invited to a special press conference with Canadiens’ owner Geoff Molson, Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) chief Jessica Lazare, and Assembly of First Nations of Quebec-Labrador (AFNQL) chief Ghislain Picard.
Calling himself an ally, Molson said he “still has a lot to learn” in his quest to understand and help Indigenous Peoples.
“It’s a community we want to recognize and be allies with,” said Molson.
When asked about the controversy regarding the land acknowledgment in October, where exactly whose land it was became a hot button issue, Molson said, “It’s absolutely essential to respect Indigenous communities in total. We’re proud of where we stand now and hopefully we have the support of everyone.”
Lazare called it a “small step,” and later clarified exactly what she meant.
“When I say small step I don’t mean insignificant. I just mean it’s a small step in the actual bigger picture,” she said. “So in different initiatives like this, when you can continue to do acts like this, programming like this, it all adds up to that bigger picture.”
She was kind of thrown into the mix two weeks ago, when plans started rolling out in earnest, and MCK grand chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer was unable to attend the game.
“Ever since the first land acknowledgment back in October last year, I know that the Canadiens’ group has worked very very hard to try to figure out a way to incorporate Indigenous Peoples in their programming, said Lazare.
“It’s a big night for all Onkwehón:we people across Turtle Island and it was such an honour for Teiowí:sonte, a person from our own community, to be able to design the jerseys and to put our representation and our culture in such a public forum.”
Lazare, who was born in 1993, the last time the Habs won the cup, is a huge Canadiens fan, which probably makes watching hockey at home interesting, since her son Bruin is, not surprisingly, a Bruins fan.
Cree artist Pakesso Mukash, Juno Award-winning musician from Whapmagoostui, sang the national anthem in Cree, English and French. He described it as “nerve-wracking.”
“For the last four weeks I’ve been singing the national anthem to my poor daughter every night, and she actually fell asleep to it,” he said, adding his goal was to make sure he did it justice on such a huge stage, with the Canadiens-Leafs game on national TV.
He played his daughter’s rattle to honour the children and to calm his nerves.
The lyrics he translated were carefully considered beforehand.
“It is the national anthem, after all, so you have to honour everybody involved, and the fact we were asked to represent ourselves, Indigenous people,” he said.
He was hoping to give justice to what he termed “the Cree philosophy.”
The first line, “Our home and native land,” was translated into Cree to say “the land of which we are responsible.”
The other line, “ton histoire est une epopee,” was translated into “your story is legendary for all that you have achieved,” roughly, he said.
“Not everything is translatable from Cree, so I had to pick the right lines that the French, English and Cree would be proud of the lines I sang for them,” said Mukash.
Mukash has been active politically in Cree communities for many years, so how did it feel to sing the anthem for a country like Canada, with its history of colonialism and oppression?
“What was paramount to me as a Habs fan was to do justice to the Montreal Canadiens as an organization,” he said, listing some of the amazing accomplishments the Habs’ only Indigenous player, Carey Price, has accomplished.
“I didn’t really want to carry that weight (of colonialism) right now. I know it’s heavy, but let’s just make everybody proud.”
Even though Mukash also acknowledged the “small step,” taken this weekend, he said it amounts to giant ones for the Canadiens and the NHL.
The Habs’ warmup jerseys were auctioned off, with proceeds going to the New Pathways Foundation. Carey Price’s sold for $20,325 and a signed team jersey went for $21,775.
For his part, AFNQL chief Picard, who has been fighting the colonial powers that be for decades, was impressed with the Canadiens “taking the lead.”
“I think it’s awesome! I think (Molson) was honest enough to say he’s learning. And people should take that for what he said and how he feels,” said Picard.
“People at times might be afraid of looking too dumb, but this is the basis. He wants to create that space and promote dialogue. And what’s better than a sport that’s obviously very popular in our communities? I think the ingredients are there to promote that kind of harmony and dialogue.”
“I think it’s tremendous what the Montreal Canadiens are doing,” said Kenneth Deer, who was proud that this special night grew from the original land acknowledgment unveiled last fall, which he helped to create.
“I think every time you get an acknowledgement it builds on the Canadian conscience about who we are and where we are, and whose land they live on. All of this is really important to try to change Canadian society,” said Deer.
The original acknowledgement came under fire because it referenced Tiohtià:ke (Montreal) solely as Mohawk land, and it was later tweaked to include all Indigenous Peoples, which Deer said was good because it sparked a conversation.
“It helped to educate them to say ‘we’re here, we’ve always been here, and we’ll always be here.’ I think that’s really really important.”
MCK chief Harry Rice thinks nights like these can be built upon, and alluded to Canadiens’ assistant coach Alex Burrows, a former Kahnawake Condor, as someone who can help in the future for something like the Kraft Hockeyville push to win $250,000 for Kahnawake in arena upgrades in the annual national contest.
“My eyes watered up when the guy sang the national anthem in Cree,” said Rice. “Then when the starting lineups were announced in Cree as well… it was a lot of pride. I shed a few tears. It was an honour to be here,” he said.
“It’s a step in the right direction to have reconciliation ties with Kahnawake or any other First Nation community. With that, hopefully they follow through with their words about becoming allies,” said Rice.
Eastern Door Editor/Publisher Steve Bonspiel started his journalism career in January 2003 with The Nation magazine, a newspaper serving the Cree of northern Quebec.
Since that time, he has won numerous regional and national awards for his in-depth, impassioned writing on a wide variety of subjects, including investigative pieces, features, editorials, columns, sports, human interest and hard news.
He has freelanced for the Montreal Gazette, Toronto Star, Windspeaker, Nunatsiaq News, Calgary Herald, Native Peoples Magazine, and other publications.
Among Steve's many awards is the Paul Dumont-Frenette Award for journalist of the year with the Quebec Community Newspapers Association in 2015, and a back-to-back win in 2010/11 in the Canadian Association of Journalists' community category - one of which also garnered TED a short-list selection of the prestigious Michener award.
He was also Quebec Community Newspapers Association president from 2012 to 2019, and continues to strive to build bridges between Native and non-Native communities for a better understanding of each other.