Hockey fans from coast to coast recently had an unprecedented opportunity to hear the Plains Cree version of “He shoots, he scores!” as Rogers Hometown Hockey made a tour stop at Enoch Cree Nation in Alberta. Sportsnet and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) teamed up for the occasion to present the historic broadcast in the Cree language.
“What’s interesting is that a lot of Canadians who don’t speak an Indigenous language and a lot of Indigenous people who don’t speak Cree also watched it only to hear it in the game,” APTN’s CEO Jean La Rose told the Nation. “Everybody was enthralled by Clarence Iron’s play-by-play. People said the man’s a dynamo.”
The event became APTN’s most-watched broadcast ever – with nearly half a million viewers. Indigenous peoples shared their excitement on social media, and by the end of the first period, “Cree” was trending on Twitter.
“It’s our new high-water mark,” exclaimed La Rose. “What will beat that? It might be the Stanley Cup game if I can twist Rogers’ arms to let us do that in our language.”
While the Carolina Hurricanes defeated the Montreal Canadiens 2-1 in a thrilling match, the big winners were Indigenous speakers and advocates. It was a dream come true for the APTN team, including Iron and studio host Earl Wood, who beamed with enthusiasm throughout the telecast.
“It was absolutely amazing,” Wood told the Nation. “I think that was the world paying homage and actually acknowledging an Indigenous language. I’ve had people who don’t even speak Cree say, ‘Man, I felt that energy!’ I know it got into places that it wouldn’t have otherwise got into.”
Wood – a co-founder of the award-winning Northern Cree Singers – believes that energy is still rippling through communities, reigniting interest in Indigenous languages, worldview and identity. As someone who works with high-risk youth, he hopes young people are inspired to learn their language as part of a healing path.
“Like any other Indigenous person out there, I am a product of an interrupted society,” said Wood, who is a survivor of both residential school and the Sixties Scoop. “(Language) had lied dormant within me for years. By awakening it and taking interest in it, I’ve truly begun to understand how to better myself and my concept of world.”
This broadcast was a long time coming for APTN. La Rose had been inquiring about broadcasting a game in an Indigenous language since the network successfully broadcast the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
APTN built a special set on short notice in their Winnipeg studio, where a live feed of the game was transmitted for Iron’s play-by-play. The logistics of regularly bringing talent like Iron and Wood from remote northern communities for future games would be challenging but everyone involved seems eager to make it happen.
“Certainly my intent is to go back to them now that we’ve had this really amazing success with the game,” said La Rose. “What we have to do is see what we can do, not only to keep the momentum, but over time, plan how can we build more languages into it.”
Since APTN has four regional channels across Canada, La Rose suggested the possibility of using each one to represent a different Indigenous language. Of course, this implies significant challenges in developing the necessary capacity and talent while managing costs.
While James Bay Eyouch would love to watch an NHL game in Eastern Cree, it wouldn’t be the first broadcast. That would be back in 1988, when Romeo Saganash, Sydney Ottereyes and Nation co-founder Ernest Webb broadcast a Canadiens-Nordiques game on CBC North radio.
“It was fantastic. To this day, although it was three decades ago that we did it, people talk about it,” Saganash told the Nation. “I heard that people watched the hockey game on TV without the sound but put the radio on for the play-by-play in Cree.”
The Waswanipi native has been an MP since 2011 and is instrumental in enabling Indigenous languages to be spoken in the House of Commons. He stressed the importance of services like CBC North in preserving language and recalled that they spent six months preparing for the broadcast, including finding Cree words to match hockey terminology.
“Our languages are important and maintaining them throughout the spectrum of society, including sport, is important,” Saganash emphasized. “I’m doing it in Parliament, others are doing it in sport and theatre, but we’re on the right track in trying to maintain the importance of who we are.”
Saganash believes being understood in one’s own language is a fundamental human right and a crucial step to decolonization. The crossover success of this hockey broadcast could be evidence that there is a growing national interest in supporting Indigenous languages.
“Signs like that demonstrate to us that people are slowly opening their minds and maybe over time there won’t be a need for reconciliation,” suggested La Rose. “It’s a tangible step of reconciliation, of recognizing that we are not asking for anything more than what others are receiving in Canada – the opportunity to use our languages and to participate in events of mutual importance.”
La Rose feels the corporate sector’s participation is a vital component of this reconciliation and is hopeful that Rogers will be receptive to his requests to expand their coverage. For his broadcasting team, there’s much more at stake than only hockey games.
“For me, it was monumental that my grandsons see me on TV,” said Wood. “Now they know that their identity and their language can take them anywhere they want to go in this world.”