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Canucks statement on orca logo without Squamish Nation consent muddies appropriation conversation

In the midst of calls for non-Indigenous people to stop speaking on behalf of Indigenous people, the Canucks did exactly that.
The Vancouver Canucks logo has been at the centre of controversy.

What should have been a public relations home run for the Canucks has instead caused controversy.

The Canucks unexpectedly became a part of an international conversation regarding appropriation of Indigenous people in sports logos over the past week. It started with Braden Holtby’s well-intentioned goalie mask that used Indigenous art from a non-Indigenous artist.

Holtby and the artist, David Gunnarsson, quickly apologized and are currently working with an Indigenous artist on a new design. In many ways, this is how this type of situation should be handled: they recognized the issue, and immediately and respectfully took steps to correct it.

The mask, however, sparked a larger discussion over appropriation and the Canucks. Many fans brought up the team’s orca logo, which uses elements of Coast Salish design, notably the trigon in the fin. Some mentioned the orca as a way of dismissing concerns over Holtby’s mask — asking if the orca isn’t an issue, why is the mask — while others suggested that the orca itself might need to be changed.

While the concerns over Holtby’s mask frequently came from Indigenous voices, the discussion regarding the orca logo became centred around a Twitter thread by Dr. Sean Carleton, a professor of Canadian and Indigenous history, who is himself not Indigenous. The thread gained enough traction that it drew coverage from TMZ of all places, while other local media picked up the topic as well.

Indigenous voices were missing from the conversation around the orca logo. To the Canucks’ credit, they sought out those voices, reaching out to leaders of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations, upon whose unceded territory the Canucks play. They put out a statement on behalf of all three nations showing support for the Canucks in the midst of this discussion, which should have provided some finality to the controversy and further cement the Canucks' ties to the First Nations community.

There was just one problem: one of the three nations named did not give approval to the statement.

Khelsilem, also known as Dustin Rivers, is a member of the Squamish Nation Council. When the Canucks’ statement became public, he was quick to point out that this statement made on behalf of the Squamish Nation was never actually approved by them.

When reached for clarification, Khelsilem said the statement had been sent to the Squamish Nation Council by the Canucks, but the council wanted to make some changes to the statement. When they asked for a timeline for when they should send comments, the Canucks never replied and the statement was sent out without their approval.

In other words, in the midst of calls for non-Indigenous people to stop speaking on behalf of Indigenous people, the Canucks did exactly that.

According to Chief Wayne Sparrow of the Musqueam Nation, the statement was approved by both the Musqueam and the Tsleil-Waututh Nation. 

“[The Canucks] reached out to us and said that we’d like to do a statement that we’re not offended by the orca,” said Chief Sparrow. “I said that we didn’t have a problem and [Chief Leah George-Wilson of the Tsleil-Waututh] said she didn’t have a problem, and we did talk to one representative of the Squamish. I guess there was just miscommunication. They wanted a wording change, but the press release went out.”

“The Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh were both in support of the press release going out as MST, because we have a partnership with all three nations,” added Chief Sparrow.

In a previous Twitter thread, Khelsilem had made clear that neither he nor anyone else he had talked to from the Squamish Nation had an issue with the orca logo. He also added, “There is no moral universe where a sports logo inspired by Northwest Coast Art is the same as, let’s say, the Washington Redskins,” a sentiment echoed by Chief Sparrow.

“I do have issues with the Washington Redskins and stuff like that,” said Chief Sparrow, “but from our side — and I can only speak for Musqueam — we’re trying to get our presence and our art promoted out there, not trying to take it away.”

In fact, Chief Sparrow spoke to the desire of having more Indigenous designs on sports jerseys. The release from the Canucks also included statements on behalf of Francesco Aquilini and Canucks COO Trent Carroll, both of which mentioned collaborating with the First Nations on the branding for the Vancouver Warriors lacrosse team. 

“When we did the Vancouver Warriors, we were involved with the selection of the name, and that’s neat,” said Chief Sparrow. “To be honest with you, we were kind of upset because we thought, with Indigenous people creating the game, we thought that there would be some native designs on the jerseys.”

Still, Chief Sparrow was dismissive of the concerns raised by Dr. Carleton, who he referred to as “that guy from Winnipeg.”

“We’ve had a relationship with the Aquilinis for over 20 years as Musqueam,” he said. “The Canucks are in our traditional territory, but I think the Canucks have a goal to be inclusive of all First Nations in B.C. It’s not just the Musqueam, Salish, and Tsleil-Waututh that are fans of the hockey team or do business with them.”

As to Holtby’s mask, Chief Sparrow praised Holtby for wanting to honour First Nations in B.C. and for quickly making it right when concerns were raised.

“The last thing we want is guys to feel uncomfortable or scared to make decisions about getting our presence and our art out there,” he said. “We should be encouraging them, not discouraging them.”

“If he had a native artist, by all means, I would love to see him in net with a Coast Salish design from one of our artists,” he added. “We have to relax a little bit. People are trying to do it out of the goodness of their heart and just not knowing the proper protocol to follow. I think that was the only mistake that was made. We have a lot bigger things in life to worry about.”

That last sentiment was echoed by Khelsilem, who turned the focus towards more important issues in his Twitter thread.

“Social justice efforts can, sometimes, be devoid of a focus on the material conditions and interests for whom justice is most needed,” he said. “There is always an opportunity to talk about what our institutions can and should do to advance Indigenous rights and the betterment of Indigenous peoples in our country where Indigenous people experience many social inequities.”