A senior hockey team in rural Manitoba that’s resisted calls to discard its controversial name is facing new pressure from the southern Manitoba city’s mayor and other residents.
The mayor of Morden is personally urging the Morden Redskins to ditch a nickname he considers derogatory — and vowing to personally cover the cost of rebranding the team, with anyone else who’s interested.
And others in the community are writing to team management, sponsors and city councillors, asking them to pressure the team to remove the moniker with racist connotations.
At least one business — BDO Canada — said on Twitter it’s re-evaluating its sponsorship of the club, which plays in the South Eastern Manitoba Hockey League.
Mayor Brandon Burley said changing the team’s name is a battle he won’t back down from.
“This is an issue that if I have gained any political capital, I’m willing to spend it on this issue,” the first-term mayor said.
Struggling to explain nickname
Burley said Morden’s reputation as an accepting community that welcomes immigrants is eroding the longer the team name sticks.
He said the moniker’s offensiveness was crystallized for him years ago when he was asked by his daughter what the word meant.
“As I tried to explain that to her, there was no way to do that, or to remove yourself from the pain in that conversation.”
After his 2018 election, the political neophyte said he waited to be in a position where he could hopefully curry council’s favour, learning from 2015, when a similar motion failed in the city of 8,600 people.
Burley feels the time has come, as the country faces a reckoning on race relations.
“If there’s ever a moment for Morden to make that clearcut and divorce themselves from this name and this image, it’s right now,” he said.
The team’s logo is virtually identical to that of the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks, which has itself become controversial.
But Burley isn’t confident it’ll happen immediately. Some community leaders won’t entertain the idea, he said, although that isn’t dissuading him.
“I’m going to make sure it stays on the front burner,” Burley said.
“There’s no way I want my grandchildren wondering why their grandfather had the ability to do something and sat quietly by and did nothing.”
Burley said he has spoken with the leaders of nearby Swan Lake First Nation, and they agree the name should be changed. Swan Lake Chief Francine Meeches did not respond to CBC’s request for comment on the issue.
The hockey club’s president, Brent Meleck, said the team will study the issue, but first he’d consult with players.
“It’s not going to be an overnight thing,” he said, in a brief phone call Wednesday with CBC News.
Resisted past calls for change
Morden’s team has previously resisted demands to change its name. In 2015, city councillor Heather Francis put forward a motion asking council to formally request a name change for the hockey team. The motion was defeated 5-2.
At the time, Meleck said he hadn’t heard anyone refer to the name as derogatory before then.
“It’s funny, because I’m First Nations, and I don’t think it’s offensive at all,” he told CBC News in 2015.
The team has played in the South Eastern Manitoba Hockey League since 1986, the league website says. It’s won the league title 13 times.
The team name has long been a target of controversy in the sporting world.
Washington’s NFL team, which shares the same name as the Morden hockey team, vowed this month to review its nickname, bowing to pressure from its largest corporate sponsor and an ongoing societal shift condemning racist terminology.
That shift had already begun in 2005, when another group of sports teams in Morden abandoned an Indigenous-themed label.
In a narrow 3-2 vote, trustees with the Western School Division decided that year to change the names of Morden Collegiate’s teams from the Mohawks to the Thunder.
Sheila North, former grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, said it’s time for Morden to make another switch.
She said while some people may be fine with the names, others are hurt by the terminology.
“We have to be mindful and cognizant of how other people are feeling, not just our own [feelings],” she said. “And if it’s offensive to one then we shouldn’t do it at all.”
Peter Cantelon, a Morden community member and local newspaper columnist, said he’s confident the team’s supporters don’t believe the name is racist because it wasn’t their intention.
“Our friends, our neighbours, some of our family members are Indigenous and they’ve expressed this hurts, so how could we do anything other than stand up and say, ‘Please change the name.'”
He said the loudest voices may want to keep the name as is, but he believes the majority of residents are either supportive of changing it, or won’t stand in the way.
“I’ve heard the buzz — it’s much louder now than in the past,” Cantelon said.
He’s pushing for change because the team name, which he considers racist, doesn’t reflect the loving, friendly city he knows.
“People who don’t live here and people who don’t know us are going to start making decisions about who we are, based on things like a team name like that, and they have the right to do that,” he said.
“I’m so passionate about seeing this name change because it’s not reflective of who we are.”