On Monday, the UN released a report condemning anti-black racism in Canada, singling out the "deplorable" conditions facing African Nova Scotians.
This report was published just after the Pittsburgh Penguins released a statement confirming their intent to visit the White House, and threw into stark relief the comments of superstar Sidney Crosby, a native of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia.
"It's a great honour to be invited there," the Penguins captain said.
His comments came as Donald Trump attacked black athletes protesting police violence as "sons of bitches," declaring they should be fired for "disrespecting the flag." Following his comments players from all 28 NFL teams responded on Sunday by kneeling during the US anthem in mass solidarity. Faced with responding to athletes protesting police brutality and systemic racism, the Penguins sided with Trump. Any pretense that their intent to visit the White House was apolitical was rapidly debunked by Trump's gleeful tweet praising them as a "great team."
In recent sports history, there has perhaps not been a clearer "which side are you on" moment. When news of the Penguins' cowardice broke in Nova Scotia, home of the Colored Hockey League where butterfly goaltending and the slapshot are said to have originated, some African Nova Scotians defended Sid the Kid. After all, people argued, he had a black roommate last season whose mother's funeral he had attended.
This wishful thinking disappeared when Crosby was found to have told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette he saw the visit "as an opportunity." But he also said there had been "little to no discussion" in the locker room about the decision to go.
"I'm pretty aware of what's going on," Crosby told the Post-Gazette. "People have that right to not go, too. Nobody's saying they have to go. As a group, we decided to go. There hasn't really been a whole lot of discussion about it."
That players in the overwhelmingly white NHL (take a look at the faces of the 2016-2017 Penguins) were able to have "no discussion" about this issue while black athletes in other leagues faced the president's harshest language says a great deal about white privilege. Their suggestion that "agreement or disagreement…could be expressed in other ways" positioned the very white people who admitted to giving the issue little thought—and who are not the ones who are seeing their people killed—as knowing better than black people how to fight for our own liberation.
Sidney Crosby, a 30-year-old man and hometown hero in Nova Scotia, has been defended by apologists who suggested that as a Canadian, he simply did not understand race issues in America. Canada, they argue, does not have the same issues with race.
That fantasy about Canada as a haven from anti-black racism should be put to rest by the UN report that details all the ways, from slavery until today, black people have faced injustice in Canada. Crosby himself grew up in a province where black hockey players, descendants of slaves, once pioneered the sport. In Cole Harbour, where he was born, in his own lifetime there were two "race riots" at the high school. If he is not aware of racism it is not because it does not exist, but because he has chosen not to see it.
Crosby's choice not to side with black athletes should not be seen as representing the absence of racism in Canada. It is instead the exact face of "polite" Canadian racism, that has continually denied and erased black presence and suffering in Canada. This is what racism looks like in Canada, where everything is so comfortable (for white people) and nobody can understand why those protestors have to be so rude about it.
Crosby's choice to prioritize a photo opportunity with Trump doesn't only harm those protesting in the United States. For black Canadians it is yet another reminder that we are not included in Canada, that white Canadians can safely ignore us and be excused for doing so. For black Canadians who love hockey, or who play hockey, it yet another reminder that the sport does not welcome them. For all the African Nova Scotians who initially sided with Crosby, hoping he would speak out, it let them know that he does not side with them.
Racism is a problem in the NHL. Sidney Crosby, the sport's biggest name, had a chance to speak, not only in support of his colleagues in football and basketball, but for players like Dustin Byfuglien.
This is a league where PK Subban played in front of Montreal fans who went to games in blackface, and where he was memorably accused of not playing the "white" way (a telling slip). A league where Evander Kane endured vicious racism in Winnipeg, the town famously called Canada's most racist city by Maclean's magazine. Where even Jarome Iginla—the model for many respectable, humble, black athletes—experienced racism severe enough that his mother spoke out about it. Wayne Simmonds, a descendent of African Nova Scotians, had a banana thrown at him on the ice.
Racism is a problem in the NHL. Sidney Crosby, the sport's biggest name, had a chance to speak, not only in support of his colleagues in football and basketball, but for players like Dustin Byfuglien. Byfuglien was the only black player on the USA roster at the World Cup of Hockey, where coach John Tortorella threatened to bench any player who protested during the anthem. That tournament was played in Toronto, where Black Lives Matter protesters have taken numerous actions to protest police killings and carding of black people. The children of Toronto's significant population of African and Caribbean immigrants are the hockey players of the future, the future roommates of white players who will ride with them on the bus, buddy with them, and then let them know that when it comes down to it, their lives do not matter.
El Jones is an activist and professor living in Halifax. She is the former Halifax poet laureate.