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Edmonton Oilers’ outreach to Indigenous community reaches beyond pregame video

Before the puck drops and before 18,000 fans sing O Canada in unison at Edmonton Oilers home games, the audience hears from Chief Willie Littlechild.

A message from Littlechild plays on Rogers Place video screens, welcoming the crowd to Treaty 6 territory, the homelands of Métis and Inuit and the ancestral territory of the Cree, Dene, Blackfoot, Saulteaux and Nakota Sioux.

“The recognition of our history on this land is an act of reconciliation, and we honour those who walk with us,” Littlechild says, ending with “kinanaskomitin” — thank you, in Cree.

The land recognition video, a tradition that began in 2021, is getting major airtime across North America with the Oilers on national television in the U.S. and Canada in the Stanley Cup final against Florida.

Littlechild called it a significant step, but it is only one piece of the Oilers’ outreach to First Nations and Indigenous communities in central and northern Alberta that has grown significantly over the past decade.

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“We’ve had significant progress,” said Littlechild, who has served on the team’s community foundation board for nine years.

“The Oilers have really been pioneers in the country, and I would say in the whole National Hockey League, in terms of inclusion and access for Indigenous peoples.”

Much of it stemmed from Canada’s National Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, a six-plus-year study conducted from 2007-15 in the wake of the country’s largest class-action lawsuit settled over the treatment of First Nations children sent to residential schools.

Littlechild said one of the findings was a call to private industry, including sports, to build better relationships with the Indigenous community, and he cited steps made in inclusion and business as evidence of progress.

“We don’t do this just to check a box of inclusion on the calendar,” Oilers Entertainment Group executive vice-president Tim Shipton said Wednesday.

“The Indigenous community in northern Alberta is significant. There are nations right across Oil Country and members of the community are such passionate members of our fan base.”

Littlechild said Indigenous girls’ hockey has seen a particular boost from efforts, including the Oilers hosting a First Nations hockey celebration and working with Edmonton’s Inner City Youth Development Association and the Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society.

The land recognition video is one piece of the puzzle and something Littlechild as recently as last week across the country in Quebec City got comments on from fans who noticed it on TV during this playoff run.

“It has been a very significant step forward to advance reconciliation through the power of sport,” Littlechild told The Associated Press by phone.

“It’s so important as a message to the Indigenous peoples both in Canada and the U.S. that we have an opportunity here through a sport like hockey to build good relations, and we’ve been doing that. It’s really appreciated, I know, by our Indigenous nations across the country.”

Shipton, who leads the Oilers’ Indigenous outreach, said other organizations and teams have reached out about the video since it first aired Oct. 13, 2021. It drew positive reactions locally and nationally.

“It’s something that people who are new, people coming from out of town or other teams across the league, they come in and it really spurs a conversation around why do you do it, what does it mean,” Shipton said.

“And it creates that opening to talk about the things that we can do from a reconciliation perspective.”

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