Home Runs, Indigenous Mascots, Reconciliation, and the Constitution

Home Runs, Indigenous Mascots, Reconciliation, and the Constitution

Posted on December 6 by Adam Dodek
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So the Chicago Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians to win the World Series. When we think about it, “Indians” is a strange nickname for a sports team. Sports teams generally use animals, symbols, or mythical figures as nicknames: the Toronto Blue Jays, the Calgary Stampeders, B.C. Lions, Winnipeg Jets, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Expos, etc. When names of groups are used as nicknames, they tend to be either historical figures or nicknames for a large dominant group: the New York Yankees, the Montreal Canadiens, the New England Patriots, or the Vancouver Canucks.

In this context, the use of indigenous nicknames and offensive team mascots like Cleveland’s Chief Wahoo stands apart. Many indigenous people see this as offensive and worse. Many non-indigenous persons like myself agree and ask if we would tolerate using Asians, Jews or Blacks as sports mascots. I think the answer to that is obvious: no, we would not.

So, in 2016, their use in Canada stands out. There are legal challenges being brought to the use of indigenous nicknames before human rights tribunals.

Reducing indigenous peoples to stereotypical nicknames and turning them into mascots does not accord with the spirit of reconciliation called for by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Reconciliation is also a constitutional value. Until 1982, Aboriginal rights were not recognized under our Constitution. When the Canadian Constitution was “patriated” in 1982, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was enacted. Additionally, the new Constitution contained a provision protecting Aboriginal Rights. Section 35(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982 simply says: “The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed.” Nobody quite knew what that meant. But since 1982, the Supreme Court has proceeded to flesh out the meaning of section 35.

In a 2005 case, the Supreme Court of Canada said that “The fundamental objective of the modern law of aboriginal and treaty rights is the reconciliation of aboriginal peoples and non-aboriginal peoples and their respective claims, interests and ambitions. The management of these relationships takes place in the shadow of a long history of grievances and misunderstanding.”

Reconciliation is hard work. It is clear that it is not only a constitutional imperative but increasingly a political as well as a social one. It is unlikely that we will hit a home run anytime soon but it we are unable to get rid of offensive indigenous team nicknames, we will strike out. 

Adam Dodek

Posted by Kendra on December 6, 2014
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Adam Dodek

Adam Dodek is the dean of the University of Ottawa Common Law Section. He teaches and writes about the Canadian Constitution and the Supreme Court of Canada. He has worked at the supreme Courts of both Canada and Israel, as well as the US Court of Appeals. Adam lives in Ottawa.