Celebrating black Canadian history beyond Black History Month

“If we want to create a better society, a society founded on justice, it is important to understand the black presence.”

Thandi O’Grady
Kicker

Bill Riley is a former hockey player in the NHL.
Bill Riley is a former player and coach of the St. John’s Capitals and a Herder Trophy winner. He is the third ever black athlete to play in the NHL. Thandi O’Grady/Kicker

Barely four decades before Canada became a nation, slavery was abolished across the British empire. 

February’s Black history month celebrates and honors the contribution of Black Canadians. It shines a light on the vast contributions black people have made and continue to make in Canada.

Isaac Saney is a professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax. He holds a PhD in history from the school of oriental and African studies at the University of London. Saney believes it is important to celebrate black history.

“If we want to create a better society, a society founded on justice, it is important to understand the black presence,” said Saney.

Bill Riley is a part of this presence. The Amherst, N.S., native and former Washington Capitals player became part of black history as the third ever black athlete to play in the NHL.

“I never dreamt that I would make it to the NHL,” said Riley. “I watched it as a young boy growing up. I studied it, I loved it and pretended I was one of these players every Saturday on Hockey Night in Canada so in my wildest dreams I never, ever thought I was going to make the National Hockey League. I was just blessed.”

The right-shooting winger scored 31 goals in five NHL seasons with stops in Winnipeg and Washington. 

Riley took his career beyond playing and began coaching. He coached and played for the St. John’s Capitals.

“That’s the greatest experience. In my hockey experience playing and coaching in Newfoundland, I have the fondest memories,” Riley said.

Above all, he says winning the Herder Memorial Trophy in St. John’s during his 1986-87 season is his favourite hockey memory.

He says Black History Month is about black people who beat the odds.

“I think if black people were truly celebrated in Canada we wouldn’t solely focus on one month and then treat the history of black people as some exotic artifact.”

Riley’s legacy didn’t end after his time in St. John’s. It is continued by his granddaughter Kryshanda Green. In 2018, she became the captain of the women’s hockey team at Ryerson University in Toronto.

“My love for hockey is embedded in my family,” said Green. “It definitely comes from my grandfather.”

While Green doesn’t recall her grandfather’s time in Newfoundland, she says he loves fishing and the lifestyle of the island.

Riley’s hockey career wasn’t all glory as there were times he faced racism. Even though decades have passed, his granddaughter still experiences racism.

“I’ve had incidents where people have called me the n-word or they have looked at me and called me a thug,” said Green.

While great contributions have been made by black people in the country, says Saney, he doesn’t think black people receive the acknowledgment they deserve.

“I think if black people were truly celebrated in Canada, we wouldn’t solely focus on one month and then treat the history of black people as some exotic artifact,” said Saney.

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