June 26, 2023

3 former players on residential school hockey team reflect on 1951 exhibition tour

Alexandra Giancarlo, Faculty of Kinesiology, shares about her role in the project
Hockey team
The Sioux Lookout Black Hawks and officials in front of the train that took them to Ottawa and Toronto for their three-game exhibition tour. Team photo courtesy Kelly Bull collection. See the complete list of individuals at the bottom of this article

Sports was an escape for Kelly Bull. As a child he played hockey while attending the Pelican Lake Indian Residential School about 10 kilometres from Sioux Lookout, Ont., and was part of the Sioux Lookout Black Hawks 1951 exhibition tour. UCalgary researcher Dr. Alexandra Giancarlo, PhD, assistant professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology, was asked to be part of a research project in which Bull and two other former Black Hawks players — Chris Cromarty and David Wesley — looked at snapshots from the time to recall their fascinating story about being part of the hockey team. We asked Giancarlo to share about her role.

Q: How did you learn about this project?  

A: I started a postdoctoral fellowship at Western University with Professor Janice Forsyth, who is a member of the Fisher River Cree Nation in Manitoba. She has expertise in residential school sports and was interested in the story of the hockey team. She approached me because she was looking for someone who could work with and interview the players, building on existing research completed by her graduate students.

Q: What is your area of research?  

A: My background is in cultural and historical geography and for my PhD, I looked at Black recreational horseback riding practices in southern Louisiana. Forsyth saw how I had weaved their first-hand perspectives into a broader historical narrative, and she thought it would be a good fit for the work with the former hockey players. And so that's how I got into the field of Indigenous sport history and Indigenous physical culture, and its importance to the cultural identity of various Indigenous Peoples and nations.

Q: What is the purpose of the research project?

A: The purpose is to put together something that honours the former hockey players’ resilience and captures their experiences and achievements with sport and what it meant to them from their perspective. The project also serves the purpose of educating the Canadian public as well as providing a record for the former players’ home communities.

Q: Can you please tell us what was behind the 1951 exhibition tour?

A: The Black Hawks’ tour was an “exhibition” of the residential school system. The Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) partnered with the National Film Board Still Photography Division — the official photography agency of the Canadian government — and sent a photographer to document the tour.

They were terrific players, and in newspaper articles school officials explain that the hockey tour was a reward for their sportsmanship. However, our analysis shows how the images of the tour served to justify the Canadian government’s policy of the time toward Indigenous Peoples: to assimilate them into white Canadian society.

Alexandra Giancarlo

Alexandra Giancarlo

Adrian Shellard, for the University of Calgary

Q: What did the students do on the tour?

A: They played exhibition games in Ottawa and Toronto in addition to full schedules visiting local attractions in each city. They were extensively photographed with politicians, dignitaries, and high-ranking officials from the Anglican Church (which administered the Pelican Lake school).

The players have unforgettable memories of playing at Maple Leaf Gardens, riding horseback at a ranch near Toronto, dining with politicians on Parliament Hill, and staying overnight at Ottawa’s ritzy Chateau Laurier. What the photos don’t show is the abuse and neglect at the residential school that the players had left behind — if only briefly — during their once-in-a-lifetime tour. 

Q: What kind of circumstances did they leave behind?

A: All three players attended school at Pelican Lake, and the DIA had received multiple reports about the inadequacies of the school’s facilities, curriculum, and staff. For example, the boys’ basement washroom posed a recurring health concern; it was “simply putrid,” in the words of the Sioux Lookout mayor. The provincial course of study was not followed and older students at the school only attended class part-time.

Inspectors’ reports from that time expressed concerns that the students’ insufficient diet was causing “malnutrition and monotony.” While a select few were taken on the no-expense-spared hockey tour, the school did not have the financial resources to adequately feed its students. A regional inspector considered the situation to be urgent and recommended the school be closed if the situation was not improved.

I would like to emphasize that even by the standards of the time, conditions at this school caused alarm. School inspectors, physicians, and local politicians all contacted the DIA to express their concerns. Repairs, if they ever occurred, sometimes took years.

Hockey team research

From left: David Wesley photo by Bradley Wesley. Kelly Bull and Chris Cromarty photos by Alexandra Giancarlo.

Q: How did you establish trust with the three former hockey players?

A: The first thing to mention here is that there are added layers of complexity, responsibility, and humility as a non-Indigenous person entering into this work. I had a lot to learn, and I stumbled at times. I am grateful for the patience and guidance I received.

When you want to speak with an Elder, you hope they will be interested in sharing their wisdom with you, and there are usually cultural protocols involved. Not having the chance to establish this beforehand, when I first met with Chris and his family, I baked cookies for them. It might sound cheesy, but it was a way  to indicate my appreciation and express my  respect for him. Also, when Chris mentioned he had been searching for an old newspaper article, I realized I had a copy, and when I offered to send it to him, I made sure to follow through.

It’s also important to be mindful of how someone else’s experiences will be represented. It begins by having conversations about intentions and making sure that the words used represent them in a way they are comfortable with.

Q: What surprised you most about what the players shared with you?

A: I had understood how important sports are, but it was powerful hearing first-hand how sports and recreation was really a tool of survival for them. To be on the ice away from abusive people in the institution, and time away from school involved more and better food. And to understand the incredible camaraderie that they had with each other. Those sports experiences sustained them and buoyed their spirits. It was amazing how vivid these memories still were, 70 years later.

Q: What is next for the project?

A: We released an article titled We Were the Lucky Ones, developed a website, and now we are in the final stages of creating a draft of a book and we have a contract with the University of Manitoba to publish it. I’m sad to say Chris passed away about a year ago, but we do have his wishes for the book.

The next step is to share the draft with the players to make sure it captured their messages and experiences. Also, I’m working on a project with Indigenous Peoples and communities who engaged in healing walks after the discovery of unmarked burials in Kamloops beginning in 2021.

Team photo

Top row of players, from left: Walter Kakepetum, Matthew Strang, Frank Wesley, David Wesley, person with bowtie who is not a player and is unknown, Eddie Mandamin, Jerry Ross, Henry Spence. Bottom row of players, from left: Johnny Yesno, George Carpenter, Ernest Wesley, Kelly Bull, Albert Carpenter. Personnel, from left: Local businessman and booster Art Schade, Indian agent Gifford Swartman, Sioux Lookout Mayor Bill Fuller, Unknown, Principal Wilson.

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