By Patrick Quinn
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
For anyone who has ever loved hockey, attending a Montreal Canadiens game against the arch-rival Toronto Maple Leafs on a Saturday night is a thrilling experience. The game played March 26 held special significance for Pakesso Mukash, he was singing the national anthem in Cree, French and English for the team’s inaugural Indigenous Celebration Night.
“The fact that one of the most storied franchises in all of sports opened the door for us to gently walk through is incredibly meaningful,” Mukash told the Nation. “It’s not even about me. It’s a small step for me as an artist but it’s a huge stride for the Canadiens organization and for Indigenous people.”
While Mukash has performed on many stages as co-founder of the Juno-winning group CerAmony, it’s safe to say that nothing quite prepared him for this. The nervous energy of 21,000 excited fans was palpable as the pre-game music of Anishinaabe DJ Boogey The Beat subsided and Mukash was introduced.
“When I stepped on the ice, I had my daughter’s rattle,” shared Mukash. “It was to honour the children but also to calm myself and call in the ancestors, so to speak. As soon as I hit the first note, I knew we’re going to be all right. I don’t know if I could have envisioned it any better.”
During the previous three weeks, he had been singing O Canada as a lullaby for his baby girl to help memorize this version. As he fluidly shifted between languages with all eyes on him, this preparation ensured he properly honoured his translated lyrics and didn’t accidentally slide back into French.
“I couldn’t backtrack if I go down the wrong path of lyrics,” explained Mukash. “When I heard the crowd chime in on the melody even though the words were in Cree, I was like here we go. Then the roar that erupts when I went into that last note, it was an incredible feeling. I don’t think that could be compared to anything.”
For the occasion, Mukash wore a beaded pin with the Habs logo encircled in tiny orange leaves that he asked his niece Nalakwsis to make for him. He was supported by a large contingent of Cree at the game, including his father, former Grand Chief Matthew Mukash, who made the long trip from his home in Whapmagoostui.
Deputy Grand Chief Norman Wapachee attended on behalf of the Cree Nation in place of Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty, who was at the Vatican to meet Pope Francis.
“Being here is a great honour for me,” Wapachee told the Nation. “It’s a good gesture inviting all Indigenous leaders. It’s nice to see brothers and sisters from other Indigenous groups. I look forward to seeing Pakesso Mukash sing, he makes the Cree Nation proud.”
Wapachee was pleased that team owner Geoff Molson mentioned the idea of hosting a First Nations hockey tournament in Montreal with the final game at the Bell Centre. Before this season started, the Canadiens committed to the reconciliation process and consulted with the Val-d’Or Native Friendship Centre to develop a territorial land acknowledgement that has been presented before each home game.
“Through our actions, we want to inspire positive change in terms of diversity and equity within our sport, both on and off the ice, as well as in the community, in order to provide all players and fans an inclusive and welcoming environment, free from any form of racism or discrimination,” stated Molson.
A few days before the game, the Montreal Canadiens Childrens’ Foundation and former Habs’ right-winger Georges Laraque joined Val-d’Or’s annual march against racism. While some hoped that star goaltender Carey Price from the Ulkatcho First Nation might suit up for this game, Price instead delivered a special video message welcoming everyone “to celebrate not only our past but our future.”
Chiefs and Elders representing several Nations seemed genuinely touched by the team’s gesture of reconciliation. Kahnawake Chief Jessica Lazare said that “if more big organizations create these opportunities, we’re making small steps to make the big step.”
Kahnawake artist Thomas Deer designed the special orange warmup jerseys that players wore before the game. They featured a two-row wampum, a symbol of coexistence and mutual respect between Indigenous and European peoples, along with several other symbols paying homage to his community.
“I wish I could tell my six-year-old self that I would be asked to do design work for the Montreal Canadiens,” Deer stated.
“Indigenous peoples’ connection to hockey is strong, at least in my community. After being fans of hockey for so long, to get that kind of acknowledgement is going to be a powerful thing for Indigenous fans.”
Funds raised through merchandise sales will be donated to the New Pathways Foundation and Puamun Meshkenu, two organizations working with Indigenous youth in Quebec. Two young Puamun Meshkenu ambassadors presented the game’s starting line-up and gave radio interviews.
For regional Assembly of First Nations Chief Ghislain Picard, the event represented a valuable space for dialogue and harmony, bringing the territory’s history into the present. He appreciated the opportunity to form new allies and engage in something beyond the political process.
“This evening holds a very special meaning for all of us because for once we’re all on the same team and we’re all trying to promote rapprochement between peoples,” said Picard. “No matter what the outcome of the game is, in my mind and heart, Montreal Canadiens are winners tonight.”
In the end, the Canadiens were 4-2 winners, despite being outshot 51-18. The crowd was respectful and Indigenous people were well represented. People who came to town couldn’t have asked for a better game, a close battle until the end with the home side emerging victorious.
“There were so many things in the air for people to be proud of,” said Mukash. “I heard people screaming and cheering while I was singing and thought those are probably people I know. It helped boost me. All in all, just fantastic.”
Patrick Quinn is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of THE NATION. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. Turtle Island News does not receive LJI government funding.