Hockey Provided Respite At Residential Schools, But Was Also A Damaging Tool

Boys playing hockey at residential school – Photo from

Residential schools have left behind generations of trauma, and negative impacts on both physical and mental well-being of Indigenous peoples.

Over 150,000 Indigenous youth across Canada were removed from their homes and communities between the 1870s and 1990s, when the last residential school closed.

The intergenerational damage done by these schools, which attempted to Colognize Indigenous people, assimilating them to Canadian culture and society, removing languages, spiritual practices, and Inidgenous traditions, is horrifying.

For some youth in residential schools, the only respite they found was through hockey.

Many residential schools featured hockey teams, which travelled to play other schools, or regional teams, providing momentary respite to students from the physical and sexual abuse, along with the unsanitary conditions, mistreatment, and malnutrition most battled on a daily basis.

“Hockey was the one bright light of a positive experience for many students,” said Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Willie Littlechild in a 2014 CBC article on hockey at residential schools.

“I owe my survival to hockey,” said Littlechild, who himself attended Ermineskin Indian Residential School.

Littlechild was a victim of both physical and sexual abuse at Ermineskin.

Through that trauma, Littlechild went on the study law at the University of Alberta, where he also played on the school’s varsity men’s hockey team.

He was abused physically and sexually there, but went on to play varsity hockey at the University of Alberta, where he studied law.

Cree residential school survivor Philip Michel explained his own experience.

“We were told we were no good in residential school. But in hockey, we were good. We were just as good as anybody. In many cases, we were better.”

Despite the relief hockey temporarily provided, the game was introduced to residential schools and students as a tool of social engineering to continue the assimilation of youth as another avenue to cause Indigenous youth to see themselves as more Canadian.

While sport may have allowed some youth to find a sense of pride or accomplishment, and make life more bearable, the purposes of introducing sport and hockey at residential schools remains murky when viewed through a historical and cultural lens.

Hockey was respite, but it was also a dangerous and damaging tool.

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