Norm Kelly remembers the day two years ago when a stranger pointed to his Saanich Braves ball cap and asked him: “Does that ever get you in trouble?”
“The person wasn’t being critical. He was just wondering,” Kelly recalled.
That got Kelly, co-owner of the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League team with Ed Geric, thinking about the issue of First Nations team names.
Kelly and Geric announced Wednesday they will be changing the name of the club from Braves to a yet-to-be-determined new name. The name Braves has stood for the Saanich Junior B team — whose alumni includes NHLers Matt Irwin and Adam Cracknell — since 1967, when Pearkes Arena opened.
The wider Saanich Minor Hockey Association also used the name Braves before amalgamating with the Victoria Minor Hockey Association last year under the Admirals name.
The issue has become part of a larger conversation across North American sports with pro team names such as the Edmonton Eskimos, Washington Redskins, Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves being challenged. Locally, it follows the change several years ago of Belmont High School’s team nicknames from Braves to Bulldogs.
Kelly said he has consulted several times previously with Island First Nations leaders about the name and none he talked to were against its use.
“But times are very different now. We decided we needed to be sensitive and we needed to be the change we want to see. We decided to be leaders, not followers,” Kelly said.
“The Braves name is not respectful to our First Nations and does not reflect the valued relationships we hold with local First Nations communities or with our First Nations players. The changing of our name [is] an opportunity to contribute to and amplify positive dialogue about race and equality in Canada.”
There has been some pushback, Kelly said. “We’ve already received some negative commentary regarding our move to change the name,” he said.
That could be because the term Braves is considered less egregious than some First Nations names — Redskins being the most flagrant — and is in popular culture thought to mean young warriors generally in the way Vikings is used as a team name denoting Norse warriors.
“It’s been an interesting process because there are so many different opinions regarding the term [Braves],” said Kelly, a retired emergency-room nurse.
“Several First Nations people told me there is no such term as Braves in their cultures and that the term is completely fictitious.”
Gordon Planes, chief of the T’Sou-ke Nation in Sooke, said he has no issue with the name Braves. “Personally, I don’t think it’s a bad name. It is somewhat stereotypical, but I don’t see anything wrong with it,” said Planes, who coached his sons in baseball when they were younger.
Redskins, however, is another matter, he said.
“One hundred years ago was a different time. Today is a better time when we can talk about these things openly,” said Planes. “It is healthy and and it is good.”
The issue is a matter of consultation, consent and respect, said Judith Sayers, president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, who did not express a specific opinion on the Braves name change.
“Sports teams have to work with First Nations and have consent [to use names with First Nations connotations],” she said. “It’s a matter of respect.”
The process to find a new name has begun.
“We value our connection to the community and anybody can submit proposals to us,” Kelly said.
He and Geric have not decided if they will hold an official name-the-team contest.
The Saanich team has won the VIJHL championship seven times, the last in 1995-96.
“We recently celebrated our 50th anniversary [in 2017-18],” said Kelly. “It will move forward in the next 50 with a new name.”