Research eyes sport in residential schools

Fatima Ba’abbad, BHSc ‘14, a Health Sciences master’s student, is studying the role of sport in Canada’s residential schools.

Angie Wiseman // Western NewsFatima Ba’abbad, BHSc’14, a Kinesiology master’s student, is studying the role of sport in Canada’s residential schools.

For Fatima Ba’abbad, BHSc’14, the role Canada’s favourite past time played in residential schools can’t be overlooked.

When Ba’abbad started working on her masters with Janice Forsyth, director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at Western, the topic of sport in residential schools was just emerging. With the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report acknowledging the impact of sport in residential schools, Ba’abbad knew her research could make a significant contribution.

“We knew sports were a big part of the residential school system, but the fact it was included in the TRC made it more official,” she said. “It was a stepping stone we could build on.”

Ba’abbad’s research concentrates on the role hockey played in the residential school system, with a focus on the Black Hawks, the Pelican Lake Indian Residential School’s hockey team in Northern Ontario during the early 1950s. She examined the role of media coverage surrounding the hockey team’s tour, as well as the experience of players on the team.

“Playing hockey was an opportunity to be good at something when students were constantly being brought down. They didn’t have a voice,” said Ba’abbad, whose recent work appears to indicate sport, while used for assimilative purposes, also played a cathartic role in an environment that aimed to suppress Aboriginal identity.

The Black Hawks team was taken on tour to Toronto and Ottawa with the purpose of publicizing the “good” residential schools were doing in terms of “civilizing” students. The news stories at the time focused on how students “enjoyed” their experience and were “doing well.” The stories were always one-sided – Aboriginal students were never interviewed, Ba’abbad explained.

“They (the media) would say things like, ‘the kids were smiling the whole time and they were having such a great experience.’ These kids were taken out of their homes, away from their culture and weren’t allowed to practice any of their traditions. Many of them didn’t even speak English,” she said.

“Newspapers, government officials and sport figures clearly invested a lot of attention, time and money into the tour, so it triggered a lot of questions in my mind, since media is a powerful force that influences our opinions, behaviours and values,” she said.

Ba’abbad traveled to Northern Ontario to interview residential school survivors that played for the Black Hawks. Visiting more than five decades after the tour, she was able to interview only two surviving players.

“My population size for this study was very small, which was frustrating, but it also makes the stories of those members who are alive more important to collect and hear,” she said.

The players Ba’abbad spoke with stressed how devastating it was to lose because they would often play non-Aboriginal teams.

“It wasn’t just losing a hockey game – it had a deeper meaning,” she said.

Ba’abbad was surprised and humbled by the participants’ candor.

“I wasn’t sure how much they would be willing to share and I didn’t want to get too deep or too personal, but they were both very open,” she said. Both participants spoke of the abuse they endured while attending residential school. Playing hockey was often a bright spot during a dark and painful time, she noted.

“They were kids, sports were something they enjoyed,” she continued. “The TRC hints at it, and how (sports) helped get students through the trauma. It’s a critical point to include, but you have to look beyond that – they enjoyed it, but what other meaning did it have?”

While the act of playing hockey was enjoyable, it was used as a way to control the behaviours of students with the promise of the reward of playing, she said.

Ba’abbad hopes her research will continue to shine a light on residential schools and further educate people on an important part of Canada’s history.