Fifty-two years ago, on Easter Weekend, I witnessed something that would change my life. I didn’t know it at the time and I didn’t understand what I saw but I knew it wasn’t what it appeared.
It was my first time attending the Totem soccer tournament in Victoria. It was Johnny Rice’s (Songhees), tournament. A few years earlier he had single-handedly put it together with no sponsorship and no funding, something I would marvel at for years to come. In those days it was just a men’s tournament with 15 or 20 teams mostly from the west coast and lower mainland—Sliammon, Chehalis, Campbell River, Musqueum, Duncan, Nanaimo… I can remember players from each team—sleek and handsome.
I was 15 years old and there to watch the Saanich Braves, my boyfriend and soon to be husband’s team. While I loved to watch the games, it was the tournament itself that fascinated me.
I stood alone. Always alone. I was learning that I was white, something a white girl, in those days, had no way of knowing. The Totem tournament was Indian. I felt self-conscious and sometimes afraid but after awhile I found a space as an observer where I was somewhat comfortable.
So there I was at Hampton Park. A muddle of players and fans were milling around. A game had just finished and the Saanich Braves supporters were swarming the sidelines, setting up their lawn chairs and blankets ready for their match to start.
Onto the field strode what looked to be a Catholic priest (perhaps a Brother, I wouldn’t have known the difference). He was alone, garbed in a full-length black robe and a white priestly collar. I’m pretty sure he wore a large cross hanging from a long necklace.
He joined a small huddle of players who were still celebrating their win. I thought it curious that he would be so confident.
As if in slow-motion one of the players pulled his arm back. I watched him wind up. I kept my eye on the profile of the black robed man. While he was smiling, as if to congratulate the team, the fist nailed him right in the nose. As if I was watching a cartoon I saw him fly backwards, arms flailing, feet up, robes catching the wind like sails, the cross on the necklace whirling through the air.
I had never heard such a thing let alone watched its every movement. The crunch of what was probably a broken nose, together with blood bursting like fireworks, should have shocked and appalled me. But I was in my observer place, wishing hard that I wasn’t the only other white person in the park. At the same time I was thinking there is more to this—a backstory I need to know if I am to understand this gory event.
The player and his teammates turned their backs and walked away as if nothing had happened. No one from the sidelines rushed to help the injured man. He scrambled awkwardly to his feet, held his nose while rearranging his robe and stumbled to the sideline where he found a bench and sat down.
Every Easter Sunday afterwards I wondered what had happened that day and why.
In 1991 when Diane Harris and I interviewed former students of Kuper Island residential school we met an old soccer player. He asked us into his house and we sat in his living room amongst beautiful pieces of his art that were pinned to the wall. He said he was tired of being silent—that it was time to share his stories from Kuper. He told us about the time he attempted to escape with his brother, only to be sent back and the time he got a bunch of students together to report the abusers at the school, only to be silenced by the arch bishop. He described his confusion when he returned home, his alcoholism and other forms of self-abuse.
Then he told us about the only time he had the chance to truly express how he felt about the Kuper Island school. It was at an Easter soccer tournament. He said he was outraged by the nerve of the brother from the school who had come right onto the soccer field to congratulate him for the win. He told us how good it felt to punch him in the face.
Casting my memory back to witnessing exactly that instant now it all made sense. It was just a moment and 20 years later an explanation. I never could have imagined such a story. But it was a fundamental event in my life and in my learning what it means to be white. It may sound random on this Easter Sunday and I don’t want to be preachy or teachy but things are not usually what they first appear and through long and complicated life experiences I’ve come to know that being white is a deeply complex thing to be.
I don’t apologize for my colour—I did that for years and it did no good.
Diane told me not to stay on the sidelines. She said it was my job to talk about what I saw…so I have and I do. I share this strange memory only to give us a moment of pause to contemplate the tiny space we inhabit and to encourage us all to keep looking for the explanations of things we don’t quite understand.