New Maritime Junior Hockey League represents important change in culture of First Nations communities

Ten-year-old Izaac Cabrera was holding a sign that read, “The No. 1 priority for me is spreading the culture of the Haudenosaunee Niska Nation. The second priority is keeping clean the environment. The last priority is making the journey home as fast as possible.”

He then chatted with me and numerous other children inside the London Garden Club.

Izaac is a prime example of the potential of the new Maritime Junior Hockey League.

Earlier this month, the league put its first jerseys together to honour Indigenous communities and other special groups in their communities. One of the jerseys features First Nations medicine man clovers with traditional smokestacks that represent the turbines to generate clean power from wind.

“When we are out and about, we see that from all different communities,” said Nina Abitbol, the league’s commissioner. “They want to show us they are proud of who they are and what they are.”

The league also incorporated a Native flag in both colours of a rainbow flag.

“When we do these matches, we are trying to make a statement,” said Tanya Syring, who is a minister of education at the Bolivian Highland Community Association. “I think it is going to take off and we are going to go bigger and better as the leagues that start up.”

The league includes three teams from Quebec, Ontario and Alberta. It started playing on Saturday, Feb. 3, in London at the Garden Club.

This league was inspired by the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.

“MJSHL started in 1990,” said Abitbol. “It is a great league. They had teams that are not affiliated with any one particular group. They have both junior and midget.”

One of the goals of the league is to raise awareness in the larger community and surrounding communities about Indigenous communities and their culture.

“We get to celebrate how much we are in tune with who we are,” said Syring. “There’s not a lot of people in the community who can identify with these communities.”

The league is already in talks with other hockey leagues across Canada to bring their jerseys to see if they will follow in the footsteps of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League and offer them to the rest of the country.

After visiting London, the league is planning to travel to other areas. The event was part of a ceremony in Toronto where they are featuring Indigenous musicians.

“It was great to see the kids make a change in the world and share that with the community,” said Syring.

The Maritime Junior Hockey League has young Native players growing up who now want to be part of teams that will honour their culture.

“I started playing last year when I was 12,” said Abitbol. “I now have four Aboriginal players on my team this year. They have received calls from home to tell them, ‘hey, we have teams coming to the Hudson Bay National Historic Site.’”

The league is now looking to expand to eight teams in the future. Each team will have a Native title area in their city.

“I think the primary reason why there are only three hockey teams (in the league) is that we cannot be promoted or relegated,” said Abitbol. “There is only one way (to play for the team), and that is as a 10 year old. We cannot take this on our shoulders, but we can give something back to our communities that will make an impact in their communities.”

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