Sports | Dramatic success from a peaceful protest

Looking back on two New Brunswick basketball players’ protest

In November of 2016, Quentin Sock and Jeremy Speller, two Indigenous student athletes at St. Thomas University (STU), used an exhibition basketball game as a platform for social justice. Sock and Speller knelt during the singing of ‘O Canada’ while holding a red shawl, the symbol of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) movement.

The effects of such a protest, at first controversial, are still being felt on the St. Thomas campus. The protest has also influenced the University’s town of Fredericton, New Brunswick.

The National Enquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women was officially enacted on September 1, 2016. Despite this, in the fall of 2016, Sock and Speller felt that this crisis was not receiving enough attention. They decided to plan a peaceful protest for their season opener that would shed light on the issues at hand, and bring more awareness to the movement for justice, as young Indigenous women are five times more likely to die under violent circumstances than other Canadian women.

At the same time, the world of sports was being swept by the “kneeling movement” that had been made famous by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who knelt to protest racial inequality and police brutality in the U.S.. A controversial topic in the states, where many fans and team owners spoke out against Kaepernick, this caused some initial hesitance towards Sock and Speller’s idea. However, as described by Jeffrey Carleton, the Vice-President of Communications at STU, in a meeting about a week before the protest, the school faculty was “so impressed with their thought process” that it was “allowed and supported 100 per cent.”

Having spoken with their own team and the King’s College Blue Devils, the game day opponent, the athletes were met with widespread support. Sock and Speller invited friends and family from their respective nations, the Elsipogtog and Gesgapegiag First Nations communities. Covered by local media and attended by school faculty, including STU president Dawn Russell, Sock and Speller’s protest became a powerful community event.

By protesting on an athletic platform, instead of an academic one, the protest was made accessible to members of both the STU community and Fredericton residents who attended the game.

With such overwhelming support, the protest was covered by the CBC and became the front page of both STU’s student newspaper and the Daily Gleaner, a local Fredericton paper.

Although not directly affected by the MMIW crisis, Sock and Speller recognized the importance of such a protest in their community. The St. Mary’s First Nation’s reserve comprises a large portion of Fredericton; also, of St. Thomas’ 2000 students, over 170 are Indigenous. As a small liberal arts school, St. Thomas offers an Indigenous students committee, an Elder Residence, and a Native Studies program.

Raising awareness both on campus and in Fredericton, the protest kicked off a series of events highlighting the MMIW crisis.

In the year since the protest, a heightened awareness and emphasis has been placed on Indigenous issues within St. Thomas University. Shortly after the protest took place, a senate was formed in Fredericton to address the recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Council. In February 2017, there was an on-campus reading of the Council’s 94 recommendations, attended by over 300 people. Additionally, in the 2017 school year, STU has supported the Indigenous community to a further extent than in the past, with an Indigenous student welcome centre and a powwow held during STU’s “Welcome Week.”

Due to their thunderous success, these community events and the MMIW movement itself have gained momentum in Fredericton and on the St. Thomas University campus.

Unprecedented in the St. Thomas community, a protest such as this has not been repeated at STU, nor on a large scale at other Canadian universities.

Quentin Sock and Jeremy Speller are no longer playing basketball for St. Thomas: Speller has recently graduated and is now in British Columbia working towards a Masters in Governance, while Sock is in his fourth year at STU, hoping to graduate with an honours in Political Science at the end of the school year. Nevertheless, Sock and Speller’s peaceful protest in 2016 on the basketball court continues to be a source of inspiration and pride for St. Thomas and Fredericton.