For a long time, fear of saying the wrong thing kept me from speaking out. But the fight for racial justice is too important for any of us to stay silent.

I’d like to begin by saying that I hope everyone is doing all right during these difficult times. My thoughts over the past few months have been with you all.

But that is not what this article is about. It’s about an issue I’ve been wrestling with for a long time: the violence and systemic racism faced by Black people.

It’s an issue that has deeply concerned me, but one that I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t ever felt confident enough to speak about publicly. If I’m honest, I’m still nervous to write this, because I know there’s still so much for me to learn and I’m afraid to say the wrong thing.

So, why now? What’s changed? It’s a very fair question and my answer sucks. Basically, I was too consumed with what I was doing to act on my feelings, something I’m very disappointed about. But in the past three months, being away from hockey has allowed me time to reflect a lot. To learn more and talk about issues and the current state of the world unselfishly.

And now I’m determined to stop being quiet when I know that speaking up in the name of racial justice is the right thing to do. I’m hoping that by speaking up now, I’ll encourage other people to do the same.

Before I get into it, though, I’ll tell you a little bit about myself and what has led me to this. I was born in Ottawa in 1992, and grew up in a neighbourhood that was predominantly white. I went to a French elementary school down the street from my house, walking there and back every day. When I got to Grade 9, I left my neighbourhood to attend École secondaire publique Louis-Riel. Walking in on the first day of class was eye-opening. I had gone from a mostly white elementary school to a high school that was very multicultural. Reflecting back now, that is where my thought process began, because it was probably the first time in my life I’d consciously thought about race.

I was shocked at first. Not in a bad way, but just by the realization that I would have to make new friends. My class was mostly made up of Black students and, to be honest, I’d never been around that many Black people in my life. I was really shy to begin with, and assumed I would have trouble finding ways to connect, but all that subsided a few weeks in. I realized that the things I had in common with my classmates far outweighed the differences, and I made some great friendships.

A memorial at the site where George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis

When I was 15, I made the decision to stop playing soccer and hit the gym ahead of my upcoming OHL draft year. That summer, I met one of my idols, Mark Fraser, a Black NHL player. Mark was not an all-star by any stretch of the imagination — at the time he’d just gotten his first shot in the league as a member of the New Jersey Devils — but he was a strong defensive force, the ultimate team guy and he could straight up throw down when necessary. Although all of these things were impressive, none of them were the real reason I admired Mark so much. I looked up to him because he was from home — the same place where I grew up — and I knew how much he meant to our community.

So there I was, a 15-year-old kid, spotting him while he benched three wheels and desperately tending his bar to make sure that when he tapped out, I wouldn’t knock his front teeth out. I don’t think I said a word to him the first summer we trained together.

The next year, when he came back after the season, we began our training schedule again. With my draft day fast approaching, I got up the courage to ask him what I needed to know before stepping up to the junior level.

“Keep your mouth shut and play hard, kid,” he said. “Do what needs to be done, no matter what that may be, and you’ll do fine.” Those were hefty words, and I’ve carried them with me my entire career.

I ended up getting drafted pretty high and came back to the gym later that week pretty pleased with myself. I got paired with Mark again and the next lesson was a good one: I squatted 135 pounds while he did the same reps with 345 pounds. Long story short: You haven’t proven anything yet, kid.

Summer went on, we trained hard and pushed ourselves, and then one Friday I got a text from Mark summoning me to his place for a couple of casuals. All right, hang on a minute. Let me look at that again…. You mean me?

So, I put my absolute best outfit on and had my mom drop me off. Turned out to be a great night, sitting in his backyard, hanging out with some of his closest friends and trying not to say anything embarrassing. He ended up telling me that he was really proud of me getting drafted, which meant a lot coming from him. There was another reason for my invite, however: I was told to never forget where I came from, no matter what was to come in my future; to be proud and thankful for my community and what it helped me achieve.

I’ve always tried to keep Mark’s advice front of mind. To this day, I am grateful for not just the community of Ottawa, but the hockey community, too. And, in my experience, a crucial and vibrant part of that community is Black.

Thanks to the lessons my folks and my community taught me, I came up alongside fantastic Black players like Devante Smith-Pelly and Chris and Anthony Stewart knowing that we were all equals — that all people were. But I have to admit that there was so much of their experience I didn’t understand. Because of my privilege growing up as a white man, I have been blind to the realities that Black communities face and the injustices Black people encounter on a daily basis. Sadly, it has taken years for me to finally become aware of this and to understand the inadequacies of silence.

I am not generally someone who feels comfortable expressing my opinions publicly. I find it very difficult to trust that social media will allow me to get my thoughts across in the way I really mean them. I tend to prefer listening to the opinions of others and conversing in smaller group settings.

But Black players, coaches, organizers and fans are huge contributors to the growth of the game of hockey and, more importantly, to the growth of the hockey community, and I feel as though I have let them down with my silence. Not on purpose — honestly, I didn’t even know I was doing it — but that’s no excuse.

I have not done enough legwork to try to understand what it is to be a Black man in this day and age. When I recently saw footage of the killing of George Floyd, I realized that I had to say something, to make my emotions clear. I, like so many others, am disgusted, frustrated and angry at what happened. And that should be easy for me to say, because I can say it without having to worry that there will be personal consequences for speaking out.

It has taken years for me to finally understand the inadequacies of silence.

I spent the first few days after Mr. Floyd’s death trying to answer questions in my own head that had no answers. I spoke to my wife and immediate family trying to figure out where we fit into this equation, how we could be part of some positive change. In my frustration, I knew I had to talk to my friend Mark Fraser to make sense of the mess in my head and to start to learn.

On a lengthy phone call, he helped me come to grips with much of what I’d been feeling and shined a light on so much I was still blind to. Mark and I have formed a deep friendship over the years, but to face the fact that I had never tried to fully understand his reality sunk in deep. Given the current situation in our society, the thing that resonated with me the most was knowing that what happened to George Floyd could just as easily have happened to Mark.

That thought shattered my heart.

As a white man, I have the ability to decide how much to involve myself in these tragedies — on both an emotional and practical level. It’s a privilege that Black people aren’t afforded — they have no choice but to be involved — but having the option to turn away doesn’t absolve us of our fundamental responsibility to do the right thing. As the majority, we need to open our eyes and hearts, and speak with our voices and actions to fight for racial justice and change this narrative.

“Based on my own inner fears, I stayed silent. I won’t do that anymore.”

As a Canadian who’s lived in the United States for seven years, I have come to love America as a second home. However, this current situation is not something to be proud of, by any stretch of the imagination.

George Floyd, 46, bought a pack of cigarettes at his local corner store and allegedly paid for it with a counterfeit $20 bill. He was handcuffed and placed in a cop car. He was then forcibly removed from the car and pinned to the ground by a police officer who kept a knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. In my eyes, and the eyes of much of the world, Floyd was killed over 20 bucks.

Ahmaud Arbery, 26, was going for a jog on a nice day, when he ran past Gregory and Travis McMichael. Allegedly believing Arbery to be responsible for recent break-ins in the area, the McMichaels decided to take the law into their own hands. They ultimately shot him to death.

Trayvon Martin, 17, was visiting his father’s fiancée when a sweet tooth led him to the local store for a snack. On his way back, he was intercepted by George Zimmerman, who claimed to believe Martin was responsible for local robberies. Zimmerman shot and killed Martin, and was acquitted of the crime. Martin had a pack of Skittles in his pocket.

In 2015 at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, nine African Americans were killed at the hands of a 21-year-old white supremacist who attacked during a bible study.

Breonna Taylor, Botham Jean, Atatiana Jefferson, Jonathan Ferrell, Renisha McBride, Jordan Davis, Stephon Clark, Jordan Edwards, Aiyana Jones — the list goes on and on. These are just a few examples of the most recent tragic incidents involving Black people in America, and it doesn’t even touch on the injustice and inequality that Black people face on a daily basis.

Living in the U.S. for most of my adult life, it’s been easy for me to miss Canadian tragedies like the deaths of Andrew Loku and Jermaine Carby or the debate around the police practice of carding. And with the two countries so deeply intertwined and American news so prominent, maybe it’s been easy for some Canadians in Canada to miss things, too. Our country has been built in many ways through immigration and we pride ourselves on our multiculturalism. But do not be fooled — racism is still very present.

Many reading this might better remember the national headlines made when a banana was thrown at Wayne Simmonds during a 2012 Flyers-Red Wings exhibition game in London, Ontario. To most it was a blatant display of racism, but a lawyer for the man who did it said his client was “oblivious to the racial connotations.” (A whole other aspect of the systemic problem in our country.)

Which brings me to hockey, the sport I love. It isn’t immune either. Not at any level.

A protest sign stands among flowers at a memorial to George Floyd

Growing up in minor and junior hockey, it wasn’t uncommon to hear slurs like “Stick to basketball” hurled at Black players I played with and against. I wish now I had called out teammates and opponents then, but I didn’t. I’m glad, at least, what I saw didn’t go further. But it does.

Just this past November, Bill Peters resigned as head coach of the Flames after allegations surfaced of his racist treatment of Akim Aliu while coaching in the AHL. Just two weeks ago, Aliu wrote a powerful and eye-opening story for the Players’ Tribune about the racism, exclusion and loneliness he’s experienced in his hockey career. I learned a ton from Aliu’s story. Everyone who loves the game should read it.

My friend Mark Fraser also wrote a piece for the Players’ Tribune, called Silence Is Violence. It’s a powerful narrative of a family that dealt with racism every step of the way en route to great successes, his personal experiences as a Black player in a sport that’s mostly white and how only the majority can make a real difference.

I will never fully understand what it is like to live a day in a black man’s shoes. I can go to a grocery store to buy food for my family. I can go for a run to get in shape. I can hold my phone with one hand in public. I can spend a night out on the town with friends. I can go to and from my job. I can read a book in a park. I can be on the side of the road at 3:00 a.m. waiting for a tow truck to help get me back home. I can simply walk out my front door…. All without fear of prejudice or violence.

I can call the police without worrying about creating a life-and-death situation.

These tragedies have always had a significant effect on me. But for the longest time I could not find the confidence to speak out about this issue. I didn’t know how and where I could be of any help. I simply did not know my place. So, I didn’t say anything. Based on my own inner fears, I stayed silent. I won’t do that anymore. We all have a voice and all of our voices are needed to combat this injustice.

In regards to the responses to injustice we’ve seen first in the U.S. and then around the world in recent weeks, Nelson Mandela’s words ring so true in my mind: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”

There are two things that everyone has in common: One is that we all call the same planet home. The other is that everyone is unique — and until we reach the understanding that this is in fact what we have in common, injustices will continue.

When they do, we all need to truly look ourselves in the mirror and ask if this is something we are okay with. Our answer needs to be “no,” and we need to challenge ourselves to be part of the difference. Do the legwork, learn, listen, speak and collectively create a home to be proud of. Use our fears and insecurities as a fuel for understanding. Challenge ourselves to be enriched by culture and to create community and justice … to make the world a truly better place.

I understand these thoughts may be met with skepticism, and even anger. I am writing this anyway, with the very best intentions, and with a full and free admission that I have grown up privileged, I am still learning and I always will be. I open the door to difficult conversations.

I believe that everyone’s voice has power. But for all our voices to be heard, those in my position have a part to play. We need to be loud, we need to be persistent, we need to be unflinching. We need to stand up and make noise in support of those who can’t. We need to challenge ourselves to go beyond a simple social media post, and to be diligent and continue this fight long after the media switches gears to “the next story.”

We need to be there to have difficult conversations with our friends who experience racism. We need to try to understand their stories and be empathetic to their feelings and situations. We need to support advocacy for these issues in any way we can, whether it’s through donations, protests or using our platforms to speak out. We need to actively search for solutions. And we need to vote according to our values, with open hearts and minds.

One more time: We need to vote. Our friends and fellow citizens who face injustices every day deserve to have the majority fighting for their rights. While there is no clear playbook on how to get this done, we need to find a way to make change for the sake of those we love.

Photo Credits

Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images; Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images; Stephen Maturen/Getty Images; Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images.