For marginalized athletes past and present, achievement can bring celebrity without equality and recognition without opportunity.
In many ways, Ontario’s Chatham-Kent region is a microcosm of Canadian multiculturalism. As a terminus of the Underground Railroad, it has long been home to a large Black community. Walpole Island and Delaware First Nations are nearby and many interned Japanese Canadians worked on local farms during World War II. The history of sport in the region is emblematic of the challenges that have confronted generations of non-white athletes nationwide. Each chapter uses the story of a local athlete—some famous, others more obscure—to illuminate one aspect of the evolving relationship between race and sport in North America. Combining tales of personal triumph with sports history and social commentary, On Account of Darkness examines systemic racism and ambivalent attitudes that persist to this day.
Fall 2022 Young Adult Selection - Top Grade: Canlit for the Classroom
About the author
A resident of Erie Beach, Ontario, Ian Kennedy is a secondary school teacher and journalist with a passion for sport and storytelling. In 2011, he founded CKSN (Chatham—Kent Sports Network), an online news outlet covering both local and professional athletes that currently reaches up to 18,000 readers weekly. Ian has worked as a columnist and reporter for the Chatham—Kent Daily Post and Chatham Voice, and his sportscasts and stories are regularly featured on local radio. He holds degrees in Kinesiology and Education from the University of Western Ontario.
Excerpt: On Account of Darkness: Shining Light on Race and Sport (by (author) Ian Kennedy)
From Chapter 3: A BIBLE IN MY HANDS
I grew up learning jokes about Indigenous people. Teachers, coaches, and friends used a myriad of slurs to explain that Indigenous people could not support their families, were drunks, could not be trusted, and were liable to steal or burn cars. Indigenous youth who were bussed from Walpole Island First Nation to “our” school were “lazy.” Entering high school, older students told us what hallway to avoid because it was where the “Native” students hung out. Walpole Island, its forested areas interspersed with houses, many of which could be best described as derelict, was a place we went to play hockey or to reach the ferry to the United States.
Entering junior hockey as a fourteen-year-old, I was terrified of my new Indigenous teammates. I soon learned what a status card was, and that they could buy hockey sticks without paying taxes. Thanks to the influence of my church, my school, my town, and my teams, I had built a caricature of an Indigenous person. It was sport, in the form of my teammates, that helped the unknown become known.
Louie and Luke Blackbird, among others, were members of our Wallaceburg Lakers team. They were tough players with Ontario Hockey League experience who called Walpole Island home. In one of my first games, I got into trouble on the ice, caught in the corner as I was repeatedly cross-checked by a much older and larger opponent. Louie, my defence partner, swooped in, grabbed the player, dropped his gloves and, within seconds, had landed several punches. He lay on top of my tormentor while I held on to the next closest player, tussling with a new foe closer to my size. Without a word, Louie got up and skated toward the penalty box. He was assessed five minutes for fighting while I was handed two minutes for roughing. As we sat side by side in the penalty box, he looked over, a smile forming at the edges of his mouth like a comic ready to deliver his punch line, and said, “If I ever have to do that again, you’re next.” He tapped me on the shin pads, with a chuckle. I took a drink of water and exhaled. From that moment on, I played knowing I had Louie on the ice with me, and that he was a friend, not an enemy.
In my early twenties, I volunteered and then briefly worked at Walpole Island First Nation Elementary School. The school grounds were an oasis: a baseball diamond and climbing equipment bordered by tall grass and shaded by oak trees. Standing in that field, watching First Nations youth roll a ball across the plate in a game of soccer-baseball, I realized that I knew nothing about the land I was standing on, and less about the people I was with. It had been easier not to listen, or at least not to hear.
At the end of that school year in 2008, some of the Walpole Island staff organized a field trip to watch the Detroit Tigers play. I sat alone near the back of the bus talking to two boys named Ernie and Wolfgang, surrounded by the laughter and excitement of children. When our bus stopped at the border, the customs officer took my passport—and mine alone—to be scanned. I was the only non- Indigenous person on the bus; everyone else was simply moving through their ancestral territory. I was the white settler whose ancestors had created this imaginary division between people, along with an educational system that had perpetrated incalculable harm. I’d been raised in the church, had played and coached sport, and was now beginning a career in education sitting on a bus full of children whose grandparents had survived residential school. I looked down at my passport and knew which side of this border I had come from, but was unsure of where I, and these Indigenous kids, were headed next.
From the beginning of their relationship with Indigenous populations, churches considered education as integral to their mission. In 1828, the Anglican Church of Canada opened a day school, the Mechanics’ Institute, for boys from Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve. Three years later, it would become the Mohawk Institute, Canada’s first residential school. At first, the Mohawk Institute operated for boys only, but Indigenous girls were brought to the facility after 1834.
In the years following confederation, the newly formed government endorsed the churches’ efforts to “civilize” Indigenous people. In the words of Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, the 1876 Indian Act sought to control Indigenous communities so as to “wean them by slow degrees, from their nomadic habits, which have almost become an instinct, and by slow degrees absorb them or settle them on the land.”1 In 1883, the residential school model became official government policy. Making the announce-ment, Public Works Minister Hector Langevin told the House of Commons that, “In order to educate the children properly we must separate them from their families. Some people may say that this is hard but if we want to civilize them we must do that.”2
An early target of this “civilizing” effort was Elijah “Ed” Pinnance who was brought to Shingwauk Residential School near Sault Ste. Marie, 635 kilometers from his home on Walpole Island in 1894. Shingwauk Industrial Home was originally opened in 1873 in Garden River First Nation but burnt to the ground only six days after opening. The new facility, which would become Shingwauk Indian Residential School, opened two years later in 1875 on what is currently the site of Algoma University. Pinnance was among the first of 534 Walpole Island students who would be taken to residential schools, 370 of whom would attend Shingwauk. Close to two dozen Walpole Island and Moraviantown youth would die there. Those are the documented deaths.
Shingwauk was operated by the Anglican Church with a goal to “raise the Indians from their present low degraded position, & place them on an equal footing with their white neighbours, to make in act Canadians of them.”3 This was to be accomplished through forced confinement in cold and unsanitary living conditions, abuse, sexual assault, starvation, neglect, and isolation. “Making Canadians” required lopping off braids, banning traditional languages, and meting out physical punishment for any behaviour that could be deemed Indigenous, something previously unheard of. According to one Walpole Island survivor, “physical punishment of children was not practiced in our culture before the arrival of Europeans. Children were cherished because they were closest to the Creator, and they represented our future.”
Sport was integral to school life both as recreation and as a useful disciplinary tool. In the summer months, children who behaved would be allowed to play baseball or basketball or participate in track and field days. “Deserving” children could momentarily run free or swim in local lakes. When the lakes froze, boys could strap on skates and play hockey, each glide of the blade a stride toward assimilation.
"A thoroughly resourced, yet relentlessly accessible work, On Account of Darkness is written for a general audience, but it is also supplemented and supported through rigorous archival research. One aspect that makes On Account of Darkness such a uniquely compelling read is Kennedy’s novel approach, in which he examines broader issues that are integral to Canadian sport history at large through a regional focus . . ." SPORT IN SOCIETY JOURNAL
"Kennedy has collected more than 100 years of stories about athletes who excelled amid systemic racism. This movement helped him realize that in addition to celebrating athletes who fought for inclusion, we need to also recognize how sport acted (and still acts) as a vehicle for exclusion." THE MIRAMICHI READER
"These stories show that anything is possible, and good things can happen, no matter who you are. Growing up you see pro athletes on the news and you think it will never happen to you, but it can. Reading what these chapters are all about shows that through struggles, dreams can come true, and kids need to know that." FERGIE JENKINS
"More than just history, this book can teach us all something. On Account of Darkness is a powerful read about racism and overcoming prejudice, not just in sports, but in Canada. These untold stories need to be heard." BOB IZUMI