An ice hockey coach, dressed in black, leans over on the ice, holding her stick across her legs, talking to a young participant with a long pony tail and wearing a white jersey, with other participants standing in the background.
The Indigenous Girls Hockey Program and Indigenous Girls Hockey Jamboree serve as powerful examples of “doing hockey different.” In this photo, an ice hockey coach, dressed in black, leans over on the ice, holding her stick across her legs, talking to a young participant with a long ponytail and wearing a white jersey, with other participants standing in the background (photo courtesy of Ryan Francis).


“…you begin to see how it’s all connected and the importance that we give these opportunities for Indigenous youth and Indigenous girls to be our future” ~Ryan Francis

On lands claimed by Canada, the ongoing project of settler colonialism targets Indigenous lives, languages, ways of knowing, connections to territory, and more. Settler colonialism is the claiming of lands already occupied by Indigenous peoples for the purposes of building wealth. It involves destroying Indigenous institutions and ways of knowing, while building what Daniel Heath Justice calls a “new social order” that is geared toward eliminating Indigenous peoples as Indigenous peoples. The violences of settler colonialism in the Canadian context include, for example, the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and how anti-Indigenous racism is embedded in institutions such as child welfare, the justice system, and higher education. As Tuck and Yang highlight, the violence of settler colonial invasion “is not temporally contained in the arrival of the settler but is reasserted each day of occupation.

One vital part of the destruction referred to above is that the settler state attacks Indigenous systems of gender and perpetuates Euro-Western gender structures. As Tricia McGuire-Adams asserts, “As a result of Indigenous women’s connection to land… [they] are seen as credible threats to ongoing settler entitlement to Indigenous territories and are actively targeted for silence, and even death.”

Sport and recreation constitute vital spaces of both settler colonial violence and, importantly, of Indigenous strength, resurgence, and world-building. In this entry, I center and value Indigenous strength, vitality, and resistance as I engage with the Indigenous Girls Hockey Program (IGHP) and Indigenous Girls Hockey Jamboree (IGHJ) as vital world-building projects in the face of gendered colonial violence. Ryan Francis, founder of both initiatives, is a Mi’kmaq hockey organizer and coach with experience as both a player and coach of competitive hockey, including formative experiences at the National Aboriginal Hockey Championships. Francis is also the creator of the Genevieve Francis Memorial Fund, initiated in honour of his late Grandmother to support opportunities for Indigenous girls and women to participate in sport and recreation and to draw awareness to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. I draw here on a life history interview with Francis to consider the importance of the IGHP and IGHJ.

In recent years, a body of literature on Indigenous hockey has flourished as researchers have taken up the ways mainstream hockey is structured by and reproduces the violences of settler colonialism and how Indigenous peoples, teams, organizations, and Nations have negotiated, resisted and refused these violences. Building on this work, I focus here on a vital grassroots initiative in the context of girls’ and women’s hockey in order to contribute to emerging conversations about the intertwining of settler colonialism, gender, and sport and physical culture.

The IGHP and IGHJ are two related initiatives offered in Mi’kma’ki, on lands claimed by Nova Scotia (IGHP) and the Maritime Provinces of Canada (IGHJ). A key aim of both programs is to marshal “the power of being able to experience hockey with your peers” (Francis), something rarely available to Indigenous girls and women, especially. Both initiatives are hockey-centered and both – and particularly the IGHJ – build in specific programming (e.g., ceremony, Mi’kmaq crafts, language acquisition initiatives) to (re)forge connections between Mi’kmaq girls and their lands, language, and culture, vital acts of world-building. It is a program guided, in Francis’ words, by the ethos to “do hockey different.” Francis expands on this idea, noting: “This can’t just be a program that gets Indigenous women and girls in mainstream hockey. It’s gotta be something that lets them navigate their journey of hockey on their terms, it’s gotta be responsive to what that needs to be.”

The IGHP has been offered in four different Mi’kmaq Nations. As Francis has explained it, this is not a program that organizers simply take into these Nations. Rather, organizers ascertain the key needs and barriers at both the community and participant levels, then work to remove those barriers to participation. As Francis explains, this centers “the diversity of Indigenous people from person to person, …recognizing that barriers from one participant might not be a barrier for another, but removing it entirely allows the program to be fully accessible (which requires trust in the community to not take advantage of the program, which mainstream sport really struggles with).”

In addition, the program explicitly works to build capacity among Indigenous girls and women, recruiting them to be on-ice leaders in the program, focusing, in Francis’ words, “on the reduction of potential barriers [its] leadership might face. Things like providing equipment if needed, honorariums (a very rare practice in privileged volunteer-driven mainstream sport) all contribute to further validation/commitment to our leaders that they indeed do belong in this space.”

Young ice hockey players in full equipment sit on the bench looking out at the ice. The nearest is wearing a white helmet and holding a stick, with "Mi'kma'ki Strong" visible on the shoulder of her white jersey.
Young ice hockey players in full equipment sit on the bench looking out at the ice. The nearest is wearing a white helmet and holding a stick, with “Mi’kma’ki Strong” visible on the shoulder of her white jersey (photo courtesy of Ryan Francis).

What the work of Francis’ team powerfully illustrates is a refusal of the dominant logics of hockey and of youth sport generally. In a moment in which we see leagues and elite sport schools charging extraordinary fees and promising improved odds of “making it” at the college and professional levels, youth sport is often accessible only to those with sufficient financial and social capital. In this context, Francis and the other leaders of the IGHP and IGHJ are, indeed, doing hockey differently.

Doing hockey differently is a radical act in settler Canada. Heralded as “Canada’s game,” ice hockey (men’s elite hockey in particular) is celebrated as the most Canadian of pastimes, and becomes part of the process Moss Norman and colleagues identify, wherein hockey serves as a “site of Canadian nation-making, where ongoing embodied acts of settler occupation in the game serve to naturalize settler belonging on, and entitlement to, the land.” The IGHP, then, both refuses the particular articulations of belonging so deeply embedded in mainstream hockey spaces and acts as a vital space in which organizers support and foster belonging, connections to culture and language, and generative forms of embodiment and subjectivity for Mi’kmaq girls and young women. Together, these initiatives are working toward answering the provocative question posed by Dallas Hunt: “If futures are not circumscribed by the parameters of settler colonialism, where, in fact, will we go?”

Author Biographical Note:

Jason (Jay) Laurendeau is a white, cisgender, settler scholar in the Department of Sociology at the University of Lethbridge, in Lethbridge, Alberta, located on lands of the Siksikaitsitapii people, who are part of the Blackfoot Confederacy. His research interests lie at the intersections of sport and physical culture, gender, settler colonialism, and childhood. He is the author of Sport, Physical Activity, and Anti-Colonial Autoethnography: Stories and Ways of Being.