Many people have seen the kneels that National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers has taken during the national anthem to protest racial oppression and police brutality in the United States.
Since Kaepernick’s gesture gained widespread attention in late August, teams at various levels in several sports have followed his example.
The entire Tommies men’s basketball squad was among the latest teams to do that Saturday night, but as a way to raise awareness for missing and murdered indigenous women and children in Canada.
The idea for a St. Thomas University sports team to follow suit came from aboriginal players Jeremy Speller of Gesgapegiag First Nation in Quebec and Quentin Sock of Elsipogtog First Nation in northeastern New Brunswick.
Speller said before the game that the move was an effort to educate Canadians on what he said is a crisis involving the 1,000 First Nations women and girls who have gone missing or been murdered in recent decades.
“Quentin and I had volunteered with the Red Shawl Campaign that was going on a month or so ago,” he said.
“We thought this was a perfect opportunity to bring awareness to the issue where [our games] provide our biggest platform and audiences.”
The Red Shawl Campaign was held at the University of New Brunswick in October to honour missing and murdered aboriginal women and their families.
Imelda Perley, the UNB elder-in-residence, said in a news release at the time that the red shawl signifies healing for victims’ families and is a symbol of protection and what a young girl earns on her way to becoming a woman.
Speller and Sock held a red shawl while their teammates and coaches took a knee during “O Canada” at Saturday’s men’s basketball home opener against the University of Kings College Blue Devils at the Lady Beaverbrook Gym.
Initially, Speller said, he and Sock planned to sit during the national anthem at STU’s first game at the Ken Gould Invitational Tournament last month.
But he said there ended up being confusion between the team and the university about how to approach the gesture.
“It was bad timing, and it just needed to have some better communication in order to get it done,” said Speller.
The pamphlet to which Speller was referring was included in the programs with each team’s rosters that were provided to fans as they arrived for the game.
Before the contest began, Keyaira Gruben, the STU Students’ Union indigenous representative, addressed the players and crowd about the issue at hand.
“It’s important to note that violence in aboriginal communities is not traditional,” she said.
“It’s time we stop looking at indigenous issues as social and psychological but instead acknowledge the systemic racism and assimilative policy that creates those problems for us.”
Gruben also said the national anthem is a symbol of Canada, a nation that includes many indigenous peoples.
After Gruben’s speech, the anthem was played. Members of the crowd, the UKC players and coaches all stood at attention, while the Tommies sat.
A moment of silence took place after the anthem for victims of violence in indigenous communities.
Tommies head coach Scott MacLeod said after the game that Saturday’s pre-game ceremony was an emotional one.
“It was pretty overwhelming at times,” he said.
“It was a wonderful statement for everyone who came to support our aboriginal players.”