‘Polite’ racism infects Canada says Olympian who was on front lines of Oka protests 30 years ago
Protesters standing face-to-face with armed officers from the national guard – it’s a jarring yet all-too-familiar scene playing out across the U.S. on a nightly basis right now, as thousands take to the streets demanding systemic change in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police.
Canadian Olympian Waneek Horn-Miller has been there before and is reminding Canadians how real racism is in this country.
“Canadians are polite racists. They don’t want to acknowledge there is that privilege,” Horn-Miller told CBC Sports.
“When we’re talking about racism in Canada, it’s not like what you face in the United States. It’s more subtle. It’s the indifference. It’s the insensitivity. Or people saying they don’t see colour.”
This summer marks 30 years since Horn-Miller spent 78 consecutive days on the front lines of resistance during the Oka Crisis.
In the summer of 1990, the town of Oka, Que., planned to expand a golf course without consultation onto a piece of land the locals call The Pines. The land is sacred to the Mohawk, who were opposed to the expansion because it is where their people are buried.
A Mohawk from Kahnawake, Que., Horn-Miller was just 14 years old when she was tasked with cooking midnight meals and breakfast to take to the warriors who were in the bunkers. She vividly remembers the escalating tensions between protestors and police – and then the military was brought in.
“It was such a horrific misuse of the military. I’ve met people on both sides who are still traumatized from that to this day,” Horn-Miller said.
“I’d be looking down the barrels of hundreds of guns. I can’t help but think about that as I watch today. Thinking about the national guard being sent in.”
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On the evening of Sept. 26, the last night of the crisis, Horn-Miller made her move to escape the area. She was trying to reach the media barricade that had been moved, fearful that if she didn’t reach the cameras in time, soldiers may harm her.
Horn-Miller was stabbed in the chest by a soldier’s bayonet while racing her four-year-old sister, Kaniehtiio Horn, to safety. The bayonet missed her heart by a centimetre.
“I looked at one of the soldiers and I said, ‘I know you.’ I pointed at him and put my four-year-old sister behind my back to protect her and that’s when I got hit in the chest,” Horn-Miller recalled, fighting back tears.
“I was in such anger and pain and sadness and rage. I thought my body was going to explode.”
Horn-Miller didn’t receive medical treatment for 22 hours, held captive inside a bus in a makeshift military base.
Turning pain into motivation
It took a long time for Horn-Miller to heal from the trauma she experienced in the summer of 1990 — she says that work continues to this day. She was young, confused and frustrated by how unequal and unfair Canada felt for her.
“Being angry was a fundamental part of me for a long time. It was slowly killing me,” she said.
She used that pain to motivate her. A prolific swimmer, Horn-Miller excelled as a water polo player. She was fierce, gritty and tenacious – attributes that landed her on the national team.
She was part of the team that won gold at the Pan Am Games in 1999, before becoming the first Mohawk woman from Canada to make it to the Olympics, doing so in 2000.
Horn-Miller’s stardom soared when she was put on the cover of Time magazine for being an Indigenous sporting hero and activist. It brought unprecedented attention to Canada’s water polo program.
“I was their poster girl on the cover of Time. They were getting all this press attention because I’m Native and the Oka Crisis. They were using me, but when I became a problem, I got kicked out,” she said.
Pushed out of Canada’s water polo team
The love affair ended quickly. Horn-Miller started to speak out about abuse from the coach of the program after the Olympics. The team failed to medal. Horn-Miller says the program was in disarray and needed an overhaul.
“There was this push within the team to clear house. The abuse started to rise and rise and rise,” she said.
Sport Canada and Water Polo Canada brought in representatives from York University Ethics in Sport to investigate – Horn-Miller said they found abuse, not sexual in nature, had taken place. Coaches were fired and a new regime was brought in.
“Canadians are polite racists. They don’t want to acknowledge there is that privilege– Waneek Horn-Miller
Not long after, Horn-Miller was told she would no longer be part of the Water Polo Canada team because of “team cohesion” issues.
As a co-captain of the team, Horn-Miller understood leadership from an Indigenous perspective, taught to her by her family and ancestors, about doing something and speaking out against racial abuse.
She believes many within the Water Polo Canada community could not understand why that was so important to her.
“I remember sitting there in a final meeting, with one of my teammates and my uncle on one side of the room, and the entire rest of the water polo team and their lawyers were sitting on the other side,” Horn-Miller said.
“I thought they hated me. They were so indifferent to it. That’s what’s so heartbreaking and lonely, and the worst part of this whole thing is the indifference.”
Horn-Miller would never compete for Canada again at an international event in water polo and says racism played a large part in that.
“I remember my teammates saying, ‘Are you calling me a racist?’ They were so angry. I don’t think Canadians truly understand racism and what it means to be racist,” she said.
‘I endured a system’
Last year, Horn-Miller was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame. She admits now that on the night of the awards ceremony in Toronto, she was apprehensive about attending.
“I’m up there with [skier] Alex Bilodeau and [NHL goalie] Marty Brodeur and people who have won. I’m there because I endured. I endured a system and came out the other end successful,” Horn-Miller said.
But she went, celebrated alongside some of Canada’s greatest athletes.
Months earlier at the initial announcement gala, Horn-Miller delivered a message that was met with a standing ovation by hundreds. Though she was honoured, she couldn’t help but wonder where that support was before.
“I’m on the stage and said, ‘I don’t think people should leave sport damaged, hurt and in pain.’ That’s not what sport is about,” she said.
“I looked at them as they stood and thought, where were you 20 years ago when I got pushed out?”
Now a mother of three, Horn-Miller understands how important it is to continue to shine light on the injustices facing minorities in Canada.
“Canada, for a very long time, has avoided hard conversations. We have to have hard conversations. Our children deserve a future where they can achieve their greatest potential and live in safety no matter who they are.”