Meet the professor helping people mobilize against racism in hockey

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If you’re familiar with Dr. Courtney Szto’s Twitter feed, you already know she’s a hockey fanatic. One of her most joyful contributions to fighting hockey boredom during the COVID-19 pandemic has been her collection of indoor dangling videos. It should thus come as no surprise that, before she became an assistant professor at the school of kinesiology and health studies at Queen’s University, her doctoral work focused on hockey. It was an excuse to hang around rinks, she jokes, but her passion for the game drew her to a subject that transcended the fun side of playing it.

Around the time she started her PhD project, the issue of racism in the sport was becoming a more prominent topic in hockey culture. Hockey Night in Punjabi had burst onto the scene as a popular form of Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts, provoking reactions ranging from positive to prejudiced. The NHL had begun rolling out its Hockey is For Everyone campaign. As Dr. Szto remembers it in her life in the sport dating back as far as when she was seven years old, she was never a victim of racism in hockey growing up, but she was the exception, not the norm. She knew there were important stories to tell about racism.

“I’ve been very fortunate to have positive experiences, but what I’ve realized the more I study it is that I’m one of the lucky ones and that it’s by chance,” she said. “We haven’t actually put a lot of mechanisms into the system to ensure people will have as positive experiences as possible, so we’re losing a lot of talent, and we’re just losing a lot of people who genuinely enjoy hockey, because they’ve been forced out of the game.”

Her doctoral research ended up focusing on South Asian experiences in hockey and using the rink as a place to “examine cultural citizenship and post-9/11 racial discrimination in Canada.” Just as we see today, with the news story about racism in the Greater Toronto Hockey League, for instance, coaches, parents and players end up extremely hesitant to speak up against the conformist culture for fear of losing opportunities – and Dr. Szto encountered the same kind of fears during her research interviews.

“There were certain parents that would say, ‘Nobody wants to talk about that,’ so there was definitely a hesitance from families,” she said. “Because the hockey community is so small, they don’t want to get marked as troublemakers. Certain interviews with coaches are basically entirely off the record because they are not willing to put their name to their experiences or complaints that they have. There is still a very strong structural component to being able to speak your truth. This is how far we are from actually making progress, because we’re still at the point where we can’t openly admit that there are pervasive problems that are consistent at all levels, whether it’s Canada or the U.S.”

The studies on the subject were a good start to raise awareness, but the next step to bring about change was to mobilize, and that’s where a new ally came in handy. Dr. Szto’s work attracted the attention of Bob Dawson, a hockey historian who was also the first black man to play hockey at St. Mary’s University and had endured a life of prejudice in the sport – right up to present day. After sending an open letter on racism in the game to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, Hockey Canada CEO Tom Renney and then-CHL president David Branch without a response, Dawson cooked up an idea for a Roundtable on Racism in Hockey, with Dr. Szto helping set it up through the Queen’s kinesiology department. The event went down in March 2019 and included numerous guest speakers from the game, from former Harvard Crimson captain Kalley Armstrong to Queen’s University forward and Pittsburgh Penguins draftee Jalen Lindo.

As Dr. Szto puts it, the event was hit/miss. It was a group of “concerned citizens” having productive and radical discussions on racism in hockey, she said, but the lack of involvement from Hockey Canada stung. The message had to reach the decision makers that shape everyone’s experiences in the sport growing up. The next step, then, was to publish a more formal challenge to the establishment: the Policy Paper for Anti-Racism in Hockey. Included in it are 10 calls to action, such as: asking Hockey Canada to institute a “duty to report policy” for incidents of suspected racism; calling upon the Minister of Canadian Heritage “to create an external oversight body whose sole purpose is to receive and investigate claims of racial, sexual, homonegative, and gendered abuse/discrimination, and to advocate for claimants: and calling upon media to “to illustrate the pattern of racism experienced by racialized players, rather than treating examples of racism as isolated incidents.”

Calling out governing bodies in the sport is essential, Dr. Szto explains, because the problems can’t be fixed piecemeal among a few conscientious citizens or independent hockey leagues. The change has to start at the top.

“Hockey Canada isn’t part of the solution yet,” she said. “You can institute anti-racism policies in your minor association and things like that, but when you travel for tournaments, when other teams come to your home arena, if they don’t abide by those same rules and are held to the same standard, then it doesn’t have a lot of teeth, unfortunately. So we do need the governing bodies really to come on board. We’ll do our best certainly to empower individuals, players and parents to make changes that they can at the local level, and I think there’s a lot that people can do. But when we’re talking about large-scale change, you need to have accountability. That comes from the provincial organization and the national governing bodies. Without them on board, it’s just too fragmented.”

The next step in the process of trying to get those governing bodies’ attention: a Q&A session on Implementing Anti-Racism in Hockey, hosted via Zoom video chat, on June 29 at 7:00 p.m. ET. It’s hosted by the Policy Paper’s four authors: Dr. Szto, Dawson, Sam McKegney and Michael Mahkwa Auksi.

“It’s a positive initiative whose time has come,” Dawson said. “It will provide a forum for an open discussion on our policy paper and suggested implementation strategies for making hockey safer, more welcoming and inclusive as well as accountable for its practices, especially at the local level. For things to improve, it will take each of us to make a difference for all of us.”

Registration is free, and anyone joining up can submit questions for the discussion.

“The anti-racism world can be very lonely, it can be very isolating, it can be kind of depressing, but to see who else is out, whether it’s another youth sports coach or somebody who happens to be in an association around you, it’s nice that you can band together when need be,” Dr. Szto said. “If nothing else, it’s activity and community building.”

To register for the Q&A, click here.

To read the Policy Paper for Anti-Racism in Hockey, click here.

To read my profile on Bob Dawson from 2019, click here.