Addressing racism in hockey with the help of online high school learning

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With the help of a unique virtual high school program, Gracie Sacca is aiming to open more eyes and ears to racism in hockey.

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Sacca, 17, is the project manager for the “Let’s Blow The Whistle on Racism” Fundraising tournament and panel discussion to be held May 27 at the AMPED Sports Lab and ice complex on Leitrim Road.

The event is aimed at having people talk about their experiences, drawing attention to an issue that has too often been swept away from the ice. The NHL, the Ottawa Senators, the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees and Hockey Eastern Ontario will be represented.

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For Sacca, it’s the final element in an extended project that has included You Tube videos and podcasts with players who have dealt with verbal abuse.

The initiative is part of the education provided by the RISE Academy, a virtual high school environment founded by former teacher Rebecca Chambers in 2020.

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It’s a more practical, hands-on approach to learning — students are guided by “facilitators” rather than teachers in pursuing subjects they are passionate about — designed for teenagers who struggle in traditional classroom settings.

The students earn credits, in addition to what they receive during standard high school hours.

Sacca is finishing up Grade 12 at St. Mark’s High School, but with the addition of the RISE courses, she has since found her social media and communications voice in addressing racism in the game.

Alarmed by the death of George Floyd in May, 2020, Sacca wanted to become more enlightened about what she was seeing and hearing before weighing in.

“People were posting things (online) without actually being educated in them, so I wanted to learn more about this,” she said in a conference call with Postmedia. “And if I was going to be posting things, I wanted to be able to respond properly, so I can educate other people.”

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Sacca, a competitive hockey player throughout her childhood, says her conversations with Saroya Tinker, a former member of Canada’s under 18 women’s team, further fed her passion to tackle the topic.

Tinker’s father is from Jamaica and she dealt with verbal abuse from the day she started wearing skates.

“She played for Yale University and now plays for the Toronto Six (in the Premier Hockey Federation) and she was telling me about how her own teammates (growing up) were calling her the n-word,” said Sacca.

“She talked about everything she faced throughout her entire minor hockey career, even going into university. It made me realize how prevalent it was. (Before), I was kind of in my own little hockey world and I was n’t really aware of what was actually going on around me, so she helped me (understand). ”

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Chambers also connected Sacca to Bob Dawson, who has six decades of first-hand experience dealing with racism in the game.

Dawson was a the first black player in the Atlantic Intercollegiate Hockey League, leading St. Mary’s to three conference championships in the late 1960’s.

Dawson, who holds a Masters in social work from Dalhousie, also spent 40 years in the civil service, specializing in employment equity and diversity.

In 2017, I co-authored the ‘Policy Paper for Anti-Racism in Canadian Hockey’ and was involved in a roundtable discussion about racism in sport at Queen’s in 2019.

“The fact that these young people are moved to the point of wanting to take these kinds of actions is very encouraging,” said Dawson, who will be involved in the panel discussion on May 27. “The future is with the young people, moving the needle.”

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Bob Dawson was the first black player in the Atlantic Intercollegiate Hockey League.
Bob Dawson was the first black player in the Atlantic Intercollegiate Hockey League. Photo by Rebecca Chambers /postmedia

As for where society is in addressing racism, Dawson says he has seen small steps, but the world has to speak out more to make it uncomfortable and awkward when racist comments and actions occur.

“It’s coming along slowly, that’s the best way to put it,” he said. “First, we have to acknowledge there is an issue and to acknowledge it, one has to commit to doing the work that is necessary in order to educate, to listen and to learn. You have to challenge your thoughts and beliefs, with a lot of self-reflection. Racism is happening all around us and you can see it on the ice and off the ice.”

The funds raised by the tournament and panel discussion will be funneled towards giving teenagers in high priority neighborhoods in Ottawa access to more RISE programs. Students in troubled areas often need additional support and the academy works directly with the Youth Services Bureau to offer social worker assistance if necessary.

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“They do homework, but they’ve created their own homework,” Chambers said of the approach. “It’s transformative, a creative way to be a bit different.”

Two years ago, Sacca says she couldn’t find her groove in the classroom.

“I never found that I did well in school,” she said. “I’m not good with tests, I’m not good with all the standardized school things, so I was open to it when it was described to me.”

Now, she’s found an avenue to express herself and draw attention to a social cause in the process. She has earned herself a scholarship to Stonehill College, outside Boston, next fall.

“I wouldn’t have been able to do this (conversation) two years ago,” she said. “Just confidence, first of all, I would have had none of that.”

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