On April 6, 2018, the Humboldt Broncos of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League (SJHL) were travelling to a playoff game against the Nipawin Hawks on a rural highway when their bus collided with a semi-trailer truck. Sixteen people on board were killed and 13 were injured in the crash. Ten of the fatalities were Humboldt Broncos players.
What first drew me to this story was the overwhelming wave of emotion that it captured across Canada. The crash led to a nationwide outpouring of grief and mourning for the victims and their families. This included a social media campaign with the hashtag #putyoursticksout, where thousands of Canadians placed sticks outside the front doors of their homes and businesses to pay tribute to the memory of the fallen hockey players. What followed was an official “Jersey Day”, where Canadians donned a hockey jersey to show their support with the hashtag #jerseysforhumboldt. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued an official statement on the tragedy, saying:
Our national hockey family is a close one, with roots in almost every town — small and big — across Canada. Humboldt is no exception, and today the country and the entire hockey community stands with you…. We are here for you. As neighbours, as friends, and as Canadians, we grieve alongside you.
In addition to symbolic support and solidarity shown throughout the country, the crash sparked an enormous GoFund Me campaign that became the most successful of its kind in Canada and second-largest ever, illustrating the global reach of the tragedy. The campaign raised over $15 million in 12 days before it was completed. By recent comparison, the Las Vegas Victims Fund, created in response to the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas where 59 people were killed, and which was first overall until Humboldt, raised $11.8 million in 12 months. The wave of grief, mourning, and the mobilization of support across the nation, was profound.
But as the country grieved, I was triggered with thoughts of the mosque attack that occurred in Quebec in January 2017 which left six Muslim men dead and 19 more injured; and of Colten Boushie, a resident of the Cree Red Pheasant First Nation who was shot to death in August 2016 in the town of Biggar, Saskatchewan, which is 200 km away from Humboldt and whose shooter was acquitted of second-degree murder by an all-white jury just under two months before the Humboldt crash; and, of the ongoing search for missing and murdered Indigenous women that increasingly exchanges progress for rhetoric. As a mixed-race Canadian with Pakistani and European backgrounds, I was saddened by the tragedy and of the lasting effects it will have on the victims’ families, friends, and community, but also wanted to understand why such overwhelming forms of mourning are not extended in other circumstances. Specifically, I wondered if my own ambivalent feelings about our collective response to Humboldt could teach us about the state of Canadian racialized subjects in moments of national tragedy.
To better understand the answers to these questions, I draw from Dia Da Costa’s work on emotions and belonging in her article Cruel Pessimism and Waiting for Belonging: Towards a Global Understanding of Affect. Cruel pessimism asks, after so many broken promises, how long will it take for those not included within the imagined Canadian community to become so disillusioned, or battered, that they look for justice elsewhere? For the Canadian racialized subject, how long will we continue to have faith in the promise of a multi-cultural, benevolent Canada, despite continued evidence to the contrary? For Indigenous Peoples – how long will they be asked to persevere towards acts of reconciliation? Acts that remain unreciprocated by the state.
Contextualizing the overwhelming wave of mourning toward Humboldt within Canada’s colonial legacy reveals the ways in which such benevolence and love is, in reality, disproportionate – finite for some, infinite for others. If we consider responses to Humboldt as racially coded, then we must also understand this tragedy as one that provokes a collective national mourning, which ensures the continued ascendancy of the white national subject within the Canadian imagination. The overwhelming deployment of affect unleashed in Humboldt tells us which lives are coded as grievable, as worthy of mourning, and cemented in national memory. This collective mourning also, however, betrays the optimistic discourses of multiculturalism and acceptance on which the construction of a benevolent, friendly Canada exists.
On April 8, in response to the rapid influx of donations to the Broncos GoFund Me Account, freelance journalist Nora Loreto tweeted: “I’m trying to not get cynical about what is a totally devastating tragedy but the maleness, the youthfulness and the whiteness of the victims are, of course, playing a significant role.” Within days, the tweet’s “impression” reached 27 million people. Loreto received hundreds of death threats, was doxed, and lost job contracts as a result of her tweet. Many responses were heavily misogynistic and violent towards Loreto, while others accused her of racism and sexism.
The example above is described by Sara Ahmed as an outcome of the formation of racial kindred. The powerful aligning of race, history and family transforms whiteness into a familial, national tie. Reaction to Loreto show how hate is exercised through practices of love. It is love for a nation that produces hate against those who threaten beloved feelings of national pride and grief for those privileged subjects that embody that nation. When national mourning is interrupted, individuals bind together in tearing down those who question this differential allocation of love to privileged national subjects. In this hate, love for, and investment in, Canada as a peaceful, benevolent nation is secured (along with the love for particular national subjects that embody that nation).
These investments in national mourning and love have significant implications for racialized Canadians, who already take on the burden of concealing feelings of discomfort, anxiety, and stress in their daily lives. In the case of Humboldt, these subjects must also navigate expectations that they participate in a national grieving process that reaffirms their outsider-ness. This love that is called upon to be shown for the nation, according to Ahmed, is a form of waiting for the racial subject–waiting for inclusion into the Canadian imagined community. A waiting that continuously produces feelings of inferiority that reveals the underlayers of the multicultural projects that at once demand love from the racial “other” while continuously producing differences to exclude them.
National tragedies like Humboldt remind us of what is considered most tragic in the Canadian imaginary, despite what our optimistic national discourses tell us. Humboldt also marks yet another impasse, injecting a wave of ambivalent affects within Canadian racialized subjects that can be described as a compulsive longing for alternative forms of belonging and justice that lie outside the current Canadian national imaginary, and at the same time a continued endurance for acceptance within it.
Adam Ali is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada. He is a member of the King Research Group: Bodies & Contexts. His dissertation project examines the ostensible rise of “radicalization” in Muslim diasporic communities in Canada through post-colonial theories of Orientalism and affect. He has also written about environmental issues in sport, including a co-authored paper with Dr. Jay Johnson on the 2014 NHL Sustainability Report.