The Edmonton Oilers’ season ended this week but Indigenous defenceman Ethan Bear continues to fight an off-ice battle.
The Oilers were swept 4-0 by the Winnipeg Jets in their best-of-seven, first-round playoff series. Winnipeg clinched the series with a 4-3 triple overtime victory in game four.
Afterward, Bear – who is Cree from Ochapowace Nation in Saskatchewan – had racist comments directed at him via social media. Some felt he was to blame for the club’s defeat because of an untimely line change that led to the winning goal.
Bear’s girlfriend, Lenasia Ned, posted online on Tuesday about the racist behaviour and comments Bear had received.
“To hide behind a screen is cowardly,” she wrote. “But to use stereotypes against him as an Indigenous person is dehumanizing and awful.”
Ned also had praise for Bear, a 23-year-old who has now completed his second full season with the Oilers.
“Ethan has broken countless barriers as an Indigenous man to make it to the NHL,” she said. “He is human. We understand there is criticism but there is no room for racism.”
The Oilers issued a statement late on Wednesday supporting Bear, receiving criticism from some groups for the delay in doing so.
“The Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club is disappointed in these disgusting, cowardly and racist remarks,” the statement began. “While we have witnessed progress in the area of equality and inclusion, this reprehensible behaviour demonstrates we still have significant work to do. Ethan Bear is an incredibly skilled hockey player and a beloved teammate. His community-minded efforts both here in Edmonton and in Saskatchewan represent the qualities any organization could possibly ask of its members.
“These comments also fly in the face of the work the organization has done to embrace reconciliation and build a strong and positive relationship with our Indigenous community. We call upon everyone in Oil Country to stand up to racism, call out hatred and do their part in making our community one of acceptance, inclusion and respect.”
Earlier on Wednesday, Oilers general manager and president of hockey operations Ken Holland said the abuse of Bear was “totally uncalled-for, totally unacceptable.”
“There’s no place in our world for racism,” Holland said.
“Ethan is an unbelievable young man. He’s a tremendous role model for all young athletes and especially the Indigenous community.”
Bear issued a two-minute video on Wednesday evening.
“As you know, I’ve been subject to racist behaviour on social media,” he said. “I know this doesn’t represent all Oilers fans or hockey fans and I greatly appreciate all your support and love during this time.
“I’m here to stand up to this behaviour, to these comments. I’m proud of where I come from. I’m proud to be from Ochapowace First Nation. And I’m not just doing this for myself. I’m doing this for all people of colour. I’m doing this for the next generation, to help make change, to love one another, to support one another, to be kind to each other.
“There’s no place for racism in our communities, in sports or in our workplace. So I call on all of us to help make change and to end racism. We all deserve to be treated fairly. And, at the end of the day, I think we’ll get there.”
On Wednesday, the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations Chiefs issued a news release condemning the racist and discriminatory comments toward Bear and expressing concern that, at the time, the Oilers organization had yet to respond.
“Our First Nations people are avid fans of hockey and the Edmonton Oilers and we are most proud of the athletic achievements of our people,” said Grand Chief Vernon Watchmaker. “Ethan has been a gracious ambassador to our youth, and he is very much a part of our communities.”
The website Hockey Indigenous, which promotes Indigenous players at all levels, said in a statement: “We stand against the comments that are roaming around the spectrum in Ethan Bear’s name and are far more disappointed in the fans of the hockey world. Shame on the people personally attacking him and taking this to an unnecessary extreme level, that is not humane and doesn’t belong in hockey.”
Events are now planned to support Bear.
Naim Cardinal, known for his rookie card collection of every Indigenous individual who has played in the NHL, hopes to see Friday, May 28 become the first Indigenous Jersey Day.
He’s hoping as many people as possible will don the jersey of an Indigenous athlete to show their support.
Cardinal said Friday could become “a day where we recognize the hard work and barriers our warriors have overcome to become role models for Indigenous youth.”
He said people who don’t own a jersey of an Indigenous player can post online and tag their favourite Indigenous athlete with #IndigenousJerseyDay.
Oilers superfan Magoo and Cree comedian Don Burnstick will be among those participating in a four-hour No Room for Racism Rally on Saturday outside Edmonton’s arena, Rogers Place.