Opinion

'To the football fans cheering the Edmonton team for decades: there was a time when society allowed this to happen. That time is over now.'

A conversation between Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Natan Obed and CFL wide receiver Nathaniel Behar on systemic racism in sports

On July 12, The NFL’s Washington team announced that it would retire its name after mounting pressure from the public, Native-American leaders and FedEx, one of the team’s largest corporate sponsors. In Canada, there were calls for the CFL’s Edmonton team to do the same. Fans of the franchise flocked to social media, spewing insults at the Inuit community, further amplifying racial tensions. Finally, on July 21, Edmonton announced that they would discontinue use of the word “Eskimo” in their team name. 

Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, sat down with Nathaniel (Nate) Behar, a wide receiver who plays for the Ottawa Redblacks and spent two years with the Edmonton team, to discuss systemic racism in sports and the lead-up to the name change. This transcript has been edited and condensed. 

Q: The Maclean’s team has been talking a lot about this idea of sports teams co-opting Black Lives Matter. So the Premier League, for example, had Black Lives Matter on their jerseys. Same with some NFL teams wearing Black Lives Matter on t-shirts. Nate, you’re a sportsman. How do you think Canadians who are active sports fans can look at these initiatives and analyze them while at the same time support the cause of Black, Indigenous and racialized communities since “the movement” is clearly being co-opted by teams? 

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Behar: Sports teams are for-profit organizations. They’re interested in one thing at the end of the day, and it’s their bottom line. Racism always has a cost attached to it and it’s not until that cost is threatened; it’s not until the price they’re paying becomes more than the value they’re getting out of the racism that they look for change. 

Any of the multitude of slurs used against Black people since the inception of the English language would never be tolerated as a moniker, or as a mascot for a team. Whether you want to call it the Edmonton Jim Crows, or whatever else you could think of, none of these terms would ever be allowed and we are one of the most dehumanized sub-sects of society.

Obed: Players have a voice. Players do have some level of autonomy when it comes to choosing the type of organizations they play for and then the voice that they have. I think teams understand the demographics and composition of their workforce and hopefully want to do right by them. I also think that there’s a lot of virtue signalling. You called it “co-opting” and that’s, I guess, a synonym for it. We see it in government. We see it in corporations. And now we see it, particularly this case where the Edmonton team has stood firmly in support of the LGBTQ community and the Black community in the last couple of months. 

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It is pretty staggering at how the Edmonton team has facilitated the ongoing racism against Inuit, especially on social media. I’m sure that they monitor it and I’m sure that they see it. And so the chorus of social media voices that have demeaned Inuit to save their name, really should be a call to arms for the team if they really do respect Inuit. The fact that they’ve allowed Canadians to disrespect Inuit so personally and so repeatedly is really their brand now.

I believe in the power of sport. But I also believe that sports also can do damaging things, too. Racism in sport is something that always has been something that I couldn’t really accept, but at the same time, I didn’t want to walk away from sports. Nate, I’m wondering what your perspectives on sport are in relation just to how it can bring people together, but also how it can harbour really difficult things. 

Behar: I’ve seen a lot of people in the media talking of how the dream or the goal of society should be similar to a football locker room. I understand the reason in saying that. There are so many diverse people in the locker room. But take Colin Kaepernick. I think it’s the big example. The inability for every single person in his locker room to speak up is the exact issue that you see at large in society. The inability for the vast majority of his 70-person roster to stand up in defence of him is the issue, whether it’s an issue of racism in policing or reconciliation. You see that in sport, just the same way you see it in society. 

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Obed: I think of a locker room and times when I’ve experienced racism in hockey. There was a time in Montana when we were at a visiting rink, and one of their fans was dangling bananas over the glass and calling me “monkey boy”. And my teammates, people that you wouldn’t consider to be “woke” when it comes to social justice, wanted to go into the stands and start a brawl with him. So they had my back at a time when I didn’t think I could do anything other than take it. I’ve always felt that there is that power within locker rooms. 

But at the same time, there is a fierce culture of guarding your team bias also within a locker room. And it’s interesting to see how this Edmonton team name has played out, where, it’s no wonder that the team’s fans are going to fight anyone that disparages their team. The really interesting thing here is that they’re fighting against Inuit, and they’re saying things against Inuit. And that is their moniker, that name. There is a complete departure from Inuit as people and the term Eskimos. It’s almost like there’s a complete divorce of the name from what it means to be a fan.

I really enjoyed your piece [“To Pimp a Movement” that was published on Medium]. You talk about your understanding of whiteness and how it’s impacted your life and influenced your experiences with racism. Do you want to talk a little bit about that? 

Behar: The term “white people” is really just a colonial term. It’s been used in the court of law in the United States from 1952 to become a class more than anything else. Whiteness is a class structure more than it’s a race of people because there is no white race. And that’s been founded over and over again by science. There is nothing different about a “white person” than any other diverse culture. Upholding the ideals that there is something called “whiteness” is very much upholding the fact that there are two separate classes of human beings, which maintains that “whiteness” trumps being not white.

A question to you, Natan. It often feels like you have to make a decision as a colonized minority to decide to be who you are, which is “less than” in their minds, or to become them, which is whiteness. We’re actively deciding every day: Am I going to be who I was raised to be, or am I going to be what they want me to be? Can you speak on how that’s impacted your life? 

Obed: That’s interesting. In many ways, I as an individual didn’t expect to be a part of a homogeneous. That I, as an Inuk, have to act a certain way, have to have certain skills, have to have certain perspectives, and that our society as a whole is homogeneous. So a lot of people are confused when I say what I believe. They say, Well, I was talking to this other Inuk and this other Inuk told me something completely different. So who is right? And you see how differently the majority of Canadians see “other” people.

Sometimes in my life, I’ve been told I’m not Inuk enough: that I don’t speak the language fluently; that I’d spent some time in the United States; that my mother is white. And it was not until I was in my mid-20s that I became comfortable with my identity and who I am, and started to then assert myself as an Inuk by then going out into the world and saying, I can be Inuk and be educated and have a different life experience and want certain things that not all Inuit want. And a lot of racialized groups and minority groups in this country probably have very similar feelings on an individual level where you’re stereotyped into being a certain way and that affects then the way that you see yourself.

But at the end of the day, I know that I have human rights; I have my own self-determination. I can be Inuk no matter what I choose to do. So that to me is very empowering. 

Behar: You just talked about how homogeneous people like to assume that “the other” is. To go back to mascot names and these sports teams, it sheds light on why uneducated or ignorant people could think that way. The media only shows Inuit or Indigenous people as monoliths. The only representation that they see of these people in pop culture are mascots that all look similar. For the people who don’t think this issue is very important—this is part of it. These are the steps that are needed to run the full marathon. The marathon doesn’t get run in one giant leap. 

Obed: And part of getting rid of systemic racism in all of its forms is sometimes doing things that aren’t necessarily popular. Racism doesn’t work like other opinion issues. Society doesn’t get to debate whether something is racist. People who are subjected to racism get to tell the world what that feels like and what that is. 

Behar: It starts by simply listening. Where I come from, it’s making sure that racist jokes are never okay and stereotypes are confronted in every single way. I grew up in a very white town in London, Ont., and just getting to a point amongst friends and colleagues so they understood why they weren’t allowed to say racist things in front of me. When we were [teenagers], they’d say, You’re barely even Black, this doesn’t involve you. It’s realizing that if you want to be an agent for change, it starts at the micro level. 

Obed: We struggle with this in many different areas of society, to be better communities and to be better individuals. And we don’t look back at the things that we did in the past and say, Oh, I was a terrible person because I used this particular term when that was the common term. It was just what we knew. And on this issue, what we knew, is replaced with what we now know. And there still is time for Canadians to show that they’re empathetic, show that they will fight against systemic racism, but also show that this isn’t a debate, and just demand change. 

It’s important for Canadians to know, that obviously, one of the first things in response is guilt and a pushback. [They think], But I’m not a racist person. I’ve not been doing racist things. I think there’s a very clear difference between somebody who is actively racist and somebody who has participated in something that now is being brought to light as systematically racist. So to the football fans who’ve been cheering the Edmonton team for decades: you know, there was a time when society allowed this to happen and that it was just a part of what Canada was. That time is over now.