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Fans banned from Hunters game

Courtesy Kahnawake Hunters

After a heated Hunters game in Kahnawake last week, the Ontario Lacrosse Association (OLA) barred fans from attending Saturday’s game against the Orangeville Northmen, a decision that left many fans and community members angry and upset, wondering if the league understands the significance of the sport in Kanien’kehá:ka culture. 

On Friday evening, the Hunters announced the OLA decision in a statement on their Facebook page, which warned that moving forward, “anyone talking to the referees before, during or after a game, will be permanently banned from Hunters games.”

When the news broke of the OLA’s decision, Derek Stacey, owner of the Hunters, received messages from parents upset that they would not be allowed to watch their children play. He expressed concern for the elders who attend the games regularly, and the Paperweight players who scrimmage in between periods. “We all suffer, not just the team,” said Stacey. 

“Cooler heads had to prevail here and I had to follow their guidelines so we could have lacrosse,” said Stacey. 

According to Stacey, the OLA initially wanted to disallow fans at both the Saturday and Sunday games, but he was able to negotiate the penalty down to just one game.

“They wanted some ridiculous stuff,” said Stacey. The OLA requested the presence of Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) chiefs at Saturday’s game, as well as a different changeroom for the referees – one with a lock provided by the Hunters. They also asked that the referees be escorted by private security guards on and off the floor and out to their cars after the game. 

According to Stacey, all of these demands were met by the Hunters, though not all of them were utilized by the referees. 

The decision came after Thursday’s 11-3 loss against the Nepean Knights at home. The Hunters were plagued by penalties, receiving 13, amounting to 26 minutes, while the Knights received four penalties. 

The third period was particularly troublesome for the team. Five penalties had been called against the Hunters in that period alone, when the referee called an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against the team with less than two minutes left on the clock. It was at that point that a member of the Hunters coaching staff was ejected from the game, breaking a stick over the boards in frustration with the call. 

The tensions apparently spilled off the floor and outside the arena, where the OLA alleged that one of the referees was verbally attacked and felt unsafe. 

“The OLA will not be providing a comment on this internal matter. The OLA and Hunters organization, through their management team, have worked through the issues and see no need to publicize the matter,” said Ian GarrisonOLA’s vice-president, officiating. 

An hour before Saturday’s game, MCK chiefs Ryan Montour and Iohahí:io Delisle attended a meeting at the sports complex that was attended by Garrison; Kahnawake Peacekeeper Mikey Stacey; and Derek Stacey.  

“Heckling is part of the game,” said Delisle, adding that he was “shocked” to hear of the disciplinary measures put forward by the OLA. “Our community really looks forward to these weekly games, and to have that taken away from them, it wasn’t really fair,” said Delisle, who took issue with the lack of evidence to substantiate the OLA’s rationale. 

Delisle described the events as a “culture clash” and wants to push back against portrayals of Kahnawa’kehró:non lacrosse players as being “barbaric.” He called for referees with more experience, who might have more familiarity with “the team’s culture and character,” to combat systemic racism in sport, an issue that he said is not confined to lacrosse, but hockey too.

This isn’t the first time that the OLA has attempted to interfere with Kahnawa’kehró:non’s enjoyment of the sport. During a 2019 playoff series against the Nepean Knights, the OLA ruled that a Hunters’ home game could not be played on the territory, and would have to be played in Ottawa – a decision that was later reversed through negotiations led by then-MCK chief Carl Horn, wherein it was determined that two peacekeepers would be present at the game. 

“The OLA themselves, they also have a job to do to understand what that is, and when non-Natives come to the game and they’re playing and things just heat up – OK, why? Where is all of that, so called, where is that racism? Where are those feelings? Where do they come from?” said Hunters head coach Garrett Cree. 

Stacey didn’t want to comment on whether the league’s decision was racist, but expressed dissatisfaction with the call. For Stacey, fans being disallowed puts a financial strain on the Hunters organization. Admission and 50/50 sales are an important part of the club’s income, not to mention the added expense of contracting security, which the OLA mandated last month, after an altercation at the Hunters April 30 game against the Gloucester Griffins.

“I think they just wanted to hit us in the wallet to show us who’s in control,” said Stacey. 

Sarah Phillips was amongst the crowd outside the sports complex on Saturday who gathered to listen to K103’s broadcast of the game. 

She said that there’s not very much Indigenous representation amongst the OLA’s referees and hopes that something can be done to improve fairness in the officiating of the sport. “We get a lot of strange calls that don’t happen to the opposing teams,” said Phillips, whose children play in OLA leagues. “I don’t want to use the race card, but sometimes it seems that way.” 

“Our children are born to play. It’s the Creator’s game. We all know that. It’s part of who we are, so it is important, and it is upsetting when an outside influence tells us that we can’t watch our own sport,” Phillips said. 

“Is it racism? Maybe it is. Maybe it’s something different. But right now, I have a job, and my job is to make sure my kids can handle that. They can handle it. Because once they can handle that, forget about everything else, bud. We’re on. We’re ready to roll,” said Cree.

“Maybe sometimes we are at fault. Maybe sometimes it is the referees, but at the end of the day, you still have to control yourself,” said Cree.

While Cree took issue with the lack of evidence provided as to what took place following the Thursday game, he is focused on what’s ahead: the four games that remain for the Hunters before the playoffs. At the time of writing the team is 7-8. 

“We’re gonna get to the playoffs, and we’re just gonna keep working hard and continue to be resilient,” said Cree. 

“As the owner, it’s my responsibility to ensure the safety of everybody involved – the fans, the refs,” said Stacey, who encouraged community members to remain vigilant at the games so that issues amongst the fans can be dealt with in the community, by the community.

For Sunday’s game against the Clarington Green Gaels, it was business as usual, except for the addition of a familiar face to the Hunters’ roster. Kahnawake’s very own Trey Deere had received permission from his Junior A team, the Orangeville Northmen, to play in the game. Deere hadn’t played in town in four or five years.

With their community cheering them on, the Hunters won Sunday’s game 9-6. It was the first time Cree could recall the Hunters beating the Green Gaels, who lead the mid-east division of the Ontario Junior B Lacrosse League (OFBLL).  

“The community always shows up for the Hunters. It’s really good medicine. I know I felt it on Sunday,” said Deere, who scored four goals and received five penalties during the game.

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