The literate side of Gino
Gino Odjick graced the cover of B.C. BookWorld in Autumn after he was profiled by Katherine Gordon for We are Born with the Songs Inside Us (Harbour $24.95).
July 08th, 2014
Don’t EVER not return a book you borrow from Gino Odjick,” writes Katherine Gordon. “Apart from being ‘about the worst thing’ you could do to him—this is a man who cherishes every book he owns.
by Katherine Gordon
Gino Odjick’s idea of a great evening is settling back on the couch with a brand-new paperback to savour—you also really don’t want to get on the wrong side of a six foot three, ninety-eight kilogram former professional National Hockey League player whose nickname was once “the Algonquin Assassin.”
“I had a teacher in Grade One who introduced me to reading,” explains Gino, “and I’ve had a love affair with books ever since. When I was playing hockey, I would read about 150 books a year while I was on the road. I still read a lot, mostly self-improvement books but history too, biography—anything, really, so long as it’s good.” Reading, he adds, has helped him get through some tough times. “A good book allows you to just disappear inside it and forget everything else that’s going on around you. I love that about my books.”
Gino’s well-honed literary streak isn’t something that most hockey fans might know about the former Canucks player, who remains more famous for his record for all time penalty minutes in a Vancouver jersey over the course of his twelve year career in the NHL. Look Gino up on the internet and you’ll find him featured in dozens of videos of on-ice brawls. Also dubbed by the media as “the Enforcer,” his fans adored Gino’s heavyweight style on the ice, and his passion and sheer strength as he dropped the gloves time and again to fight for his team on the rink.
But Gino was always as thoughtful about his battles on the ice as he was (and still is) about his reading choices. It was always simply about looking after his teammates. “I had a job to do,” he explains. “I didn’t fight for the sake of fighting or to prove how tough I was. My role was to create space for my team-mates to play with peace of mind, knowing I was watching their backs. That let them focus on what they needed to do to win the game. Hockey was always about winning, not fighting.”
Being a team player was a role that came naturally to Gino, with strong roots in his childhood in the tiny Maniwaki community of Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation in Quebec, two hours north of Ottawa. Gino is the middle child of seven, and the only boy. Holding his own against six sisters was no mean feat, even for a big, strong kid like Gino. From his sisters and his mother, the young boy also learned a healthy respect for the wisdom and strength of women that he has carried with him throughout his adult life.
His parents’ warm, comfortable home was constantly filled with dozens of children from remote communities, as many as twenty or more at a time. Many of those communities had no high schools, and Gino’s mother and his father Joe, a hardworking and warm-hearted man, always opened their doors to any child who needed a place to call home while he or she was finishing their education.
Gino’s eyes fill with tears as he recalls the teachings and the love, warmth and support that he and his sisters and foster siblings received growing up. “My Dad looked after all of us,” says Gino quietly. “His whole life, he worked to take care of us—he went to work in Detroit, New York, working on building the high-rises and bridges, wherever the work was. It didn’t matter what the economy was doing, he always found work. There was never a time when any of us were hungry or cold or didn’t have good clothes to wear. To this day, he’s seventy-three now, he stills looks after his grandchildren the same way.”
It was Joe who also instilled a strong sense of self-confidence in his only son at an early age. Joe knew it was a vital form of self-protection for a young First Nations boy struggling with rampant racism in the non-native communities near his home: “Where I grew up in the seventies, coming from the reserve,” says Gino reflectively, “I was always treated as a second-class citizen by non-Aboriginal people.”
As a kid, Gino played hockey for the reserve team. “We had to stick together because it was really tough. We’d go into town to play the town kids and if we won, we’d need a police escort out of the rink. We were only twelve years old but we needed that protection.” Gino’s self-confidence helped hold the team together. “I was always proud of the fact that we all stuck together. It was all for one and one for all. We would just form a circle and make it clear that if you touched one of us, you touched all of us, and we weren’t going to stand for it.”
Gino’s Dad also told his son never to allow himself to become a victim of the prejudice he faced. “He was sent to residential school and beaten as discipline, just for being who he was, so he knew what he was talking about. I always wanted to prove those people were wrong, that we weren’t second-class citizens. My Dad approved of that, but he never allowed me to feel sorry for myself. If I was in a situation where someone else was getting the upper hand, he would tease me or joke around with me until I dealt with it. It made me stronger and wiser, able to deal with that kind of situation.”
Joe also gave Gino an unparalleled education in dealing with his fears, another lesson that would prove invaluable to him in his hockey career. “He saw that I had a passion for hockey, and he helped me train and build up my strength to play. He really worked me hard. One of the best things I remember that he did was to take me out one day to a mountain nearby our community. It’s about four or five kilometres up and across, and we walked up and over it together that first time. It was no big deal. But then around the time of the next full moon, he drove me to the base of the mountain after dark and this time he said, you walk across by yourself and I’ll pick you up on the other side.”
Joe didn’t let his young son protest or ask any questions. “He just said, ‘Do what I tell you.’ So off I went. It may have been full moon time, but the path was in the forest and it was pretty dark. I was nervous about what might be out there, but I made it over OK. When I got to the other side, he was waiting to pick me up. In the truck he turned to me and said, now you keep doing that until you feel comfortable doing it. You just keep doing it until it becomes second nature.”
Gino did as he was told, crossing that mountain several times more in the dark until he had finally lost all his fear of what might happen to him. “It really helped me later when I started to play professional hockey. I learned by crossing that mountain that it’s not what actually happens that drains the energy out of people. It’s worrying about what might happen. I remember seeing some of my teammates nervous and pacing around before a game, but I never got pre-game nerves. I never worried about what might happen out on the ice. I always just conserved my energy to focus on what needed to be done, to get through the game and win it.”
It was an incredible gift from a father to a young son he knew would need all the help he could get if he was to eventually succeed as a professional hockey player. Gino was big, tough and incredibly strong, but he would still be just fifteen years old when he left home, leaving Joe, his mom and his family behind to play minor league hockey in Montreal. It was anything but easy. “In fact, I think that was about the toughest thing I ever had to do in my life,” he recalls.
“Leaving the comfort of my home and family life and my community to go to a huge city like Montreal by myself was hard. I knew it was a huge opportunity for me but it was very difficult looking back at all those people who supported me, my mom and my sisters, all the people in the community, and just driving away from them like that to go spend my life on the road. They never wavered in supporting me and allowing me to focus on my career.”
In 1990, Gino hit the big time professionally when he was drafted into the Vancouver Canucks hockey team as a left-winger. He was still only twenty years old. The rest is hockey history: sixty-four goals, seventy-three assists, the fighting nicknames, and his legendary close friendship with Russian superstar Canucks player Pavel Bure, drafted the following year. The two became inseparable, despite their very different backgrounds: “He was a long way from home, so was I. He was very proud of his Russian heritage, I was proud of my heritage, and we were both displaced into this very different cultural environment, so actually we had a lot in common right from the beginning. We’re still good friends.”
Gino immediately fell in love with the west coast of Canada when he arrived, despite it being so different to what he was used to back home. “I loved the mountains. It’s such a beautiful place.” For a young single man on a good wage, Vancouver also offered an attractive lifestyle that he came to thoroughly enjoy.
“I really liked all the restaurants and the food. Pavel and I would try all these different new restaurants all over Vancouver. It was great. That’s still something I like to do,” he says enthusiastically. He also quickly came to feel at home: “There were so many First Nations people here. That really helped it feel a like a good place for me to be.” Within a short time of his arrival in Vancouver, Gino befriended people living on Musqueam First Nation, and he has made his home there ever since.
After finally quitting the NHL in 2002, the decision to stay on the west coast was therefore pretty easy. The following year, Gino, a keen golfer, took on a management role at the Musqueam Golf and Learning Academy at Musqueam’s Eaglequest Golf Club.
He felt right at home there, too, and not just because the club is on First Nations land. Once again, as in his childhood, he was surrounded by smart, supportive women—and just as he did as a teenager, he paid close attention to what they had to say. In 2011 he told Vancouver journalist Jef Choy: “In 2010, Musqueam was voted the most female-friendly course in Canada. We have a woman general manager and assistant general manager, and our head pro is also a woman. It’s the secret to our success. The women are the ones who have brought the life into this business. I’ve learned to just stay out of the way and let them do their thing!”
No longer tied to the demands of an onerous game schedule, Gino also looked around for other new ventures. Resting on his laurels simply wasn’t an option. Used to the tight and demanding discipline of the professional sports world, he needed to be busy. He also knew he wanted to do something to help First Nations people enjoy the same kind of success and opportunities that he had, through education, good employment prospects, economic development and greater control by First Nations over their lands and resources.
“I know what a huge difference it makes to a community to have good businesses up and running and employment for their people, especially the young people. It just changes the whole life of that community for the better. It gives them hope.” Gino believes passionately that First Nations people in Canada are entitled to have that hope and that prosperity.
“There’s this sign in a band office I saw once, and now it’s my mantra—‘First Nations People Have Always Worked For a Living.’ The world needs to realize that. The world needs to understand that we will look after Mother Earth properly and keep it safe, but that if we see business opportunities as being consistent with that and good for us we know what to do. We’ll do it in the best way, the most environmentally sound way, but we’ll use the opportunity to our best possible advantage at the same time, and we will work very hard to succeed at it.”
Over the last decade Gino has put his money literally where his mouth is, investing in numerous initiatives and partnerships supporting First Nations developments and employment. In 2010 he partnered with Vancouver’s Aquilini Investment Group to undertake a six hundred-unit housing development for the Tsawwassen First Nation in Delta, and in 2011 he began work on an electronic recycling project with the Sumas First Nation in the Fraser Valley.
“They are both very positive projects,” says Gino enthusiastically. “That’s just the start, too. First Nations people know so much, we’ve been looking after ourselves for so long and doing so much with so little, can you imagine what things will be like when we are all managing our lands and resources again like we used to? Despite all the adversity we’ve been through, we’re still here. We’ve evolved and we’ve adapted. I just know in my heart that First Nations are going to dominate the landscape again and when we do, we will do well again here in our lives.”
Getting First Nations into business is just one of the ways Gino is trying to improve the outlook for the communities with whom he works. He has also become a powerful role model for First Nations youth, joining forces with businessman and youth mentor Peter Leech to run workshops for First Nations children and youth. In the workshops Peter and Gino focus on how the kids can conquer their fears, and Gino takes a strong message with him that, like him, they have what it takes to succeed in life.
Thirty years after his own childhood battles with racism, Gino is saddened by the fact that First Nations children in Canada still face similar struggles. But he also wants to turn that challenge into opportunity for the kids he works with and to help them succeed in their goals and dreams. Like his father Joe did before him, he tells the young people: “Don’t feel inferior to anyone. You’re no better than anyone, but you’re certainly no worse. Just do the best that you can every day and give yourselves every opportunity to succeed. Do little things every day to improve, and tell yourself, I’m going to make this happen. It will.”
He suggests they read a good book, telling them how important reading has been in his life. He also tells them to never forget the importance of their cultural heritage: “It’s everything, right? The spirits never lied to me about which direction to go, and how to proceed—to always see the best in people all of the time. You get what you see out of people. I tell the kids, just live with a good heart and a good mind, and just do the best that you can every day. When you live your life that way, even if you lose your discipline a little bit and stray from the red path a little, you will always come back. You will learn. You’ll have a good life.”
We are Born with the Songs Inside Us: Lives and Stories of First Nations People in British Columbia by Katherine Palmer Gordon (Harbour Publishing $24.95)
by Caroline Woodward
“First Nations are the fastest growing population in the country. There are thousands upon thousands of young First Nations people growing up today who, together with the kind of individuals whose stories are told in this book, represent a future for this country that is brighter than it has been for a long, long time.”
—Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, from the Foreword
In 2004, when Katherine Palmer Gordon was in terviewing Shawn Atleo for a BC Business magazine article, their discussion turned to the relentlessly negative portrayal of aboriginal Canadians in the mainstream press. Where were all the amazing people they both knew existed?
Gordon’s sixteen profiles in We are Born with the Songs Inside Us have risen from that conversation. Stunning black and white portraits underscore one of several resonant themes: People are finally seeing us now.
Gordon introduces articulate, self-assured young First Nations people from B.C. who talk about their personal journeys as artists and business innovators, doctors and treaty negotiators, educators and athletes, community organizers and stand-up comedians, lawyers and marine biologists, gay and straight, proud parents, devoted sons and daughters. The commentaries of visionary mentors like Sophie Pierre of the East Kootenay Ktunaxa First Nation and Clarence Louie of the Osoyoos Band alone are worth the price of the book.
The pressures of community expectations have developed many strong shoulders and level heads. Atleo, Vancouver Canucks fan favourite Gino Odjick and medical doctor/actor/playwright Evan Tlesla Adams are widely-known in society while others are well-known in their own community and professional circles.
While not diminishing the harsh reality that many First Nations face daily, this book profiles just some of the many determined and skilled people on the frontlines of change. Readers with little exposure to B.C.’s indigenous peoples are in for a wake-up call. They will read about social workers like William Yoachim of the Snuneymuxw Nation near Nanaimo, who is facing the legacy of depression, addiction and abuse left by the residential school experience on previous generations.
Along the way they will begin to comprehend the great loss to an entire community when Ucluelet band councillor and surfer Evan Touchie died of a heart attack at the age of thirty-three.
Others will learn the pros and cons of living in isolated rural or hemmed-in urban reserves, or living and working off-reserve entirely.
Here we meet remarkable educators, such as Governor-General’s award winning history teacher and program co-ordinator Anne Tenning in Penticton. Readers will also be introduced to Renée Sampson and Kendra Underwood from the Tsartlip First Nation near Brentwood Bay, dedicated to the preservation and passing on of SENCOTEN, one of thirty-two remaining indigenous languages in B.C..
While the book is structured around the individual profiles and elder/mentor commentaries, there are useful sections written by Gordon that provide additional historical and political ballast.
The historic Tsawwassen Treaty, negotiated by profile subject, Kim Baird and her dedicated team, is summarized and Gordon profiles Gino Odjick, who now runs several successful businesses and lives with his family on the Musqueam First Nation reserve.
After quitting the NHL in 2002, Odjick, a keen golfer, took on a management role at the Musqueam Golf and Learning Academy at Musqueam’s Eaglequest Golf Club. “In 2010, Musqueam was voted the most female-friendly course in Canada,” he told journalist Jef Choy. “We have a woman general manager and assistant general manager, and our head pro is also a woman. It’s the secret to our success. The women are the ones who have brought the life into this business. I’ve learned to just stay out of the way and let them do their thing!”
He told Gordon, “I know what a huge difference it makes to a community to have good businesses up and running and employment for their people, especially the young people. It just changes the whole life of that community for the better. It gives them hope…
“There’s this sign in a band office I saw once, and now it’s my mantra: First Nations People Have Always Worked for a Living. The world needs to realize that. The world needs to understand that we will look after Mother Earth properly and keep it safe, but that if we see business opportunities as being consistent with that and good for us we know what to do. We’ll do it in the best way, the most environmentally sound way, but we’ll use the opportunity to our best.”
Odjick is a lifelong reader and spends many hours annually talking to students. His friend, fellow pro hockey player, champion amateur boxer and businessperson, Peter Leech, is a post-secondary business education teacher.
But if there is one indisputable link amongst each of the individuals in this book, it begins with the song that was born and nurtured inside each one, their early exposure to their own languages and ways of being and thinking which are culturally specific to their people, the land they are standing on and the water beside them. Invariably indigenous mentors recognized their talents, shared old ways and new strategies and encouraged them to brighter futures.
Mike Willy of Port Hardy, the Cultural Preservation and Revitalization Co-ordinator for the Gwa’sala-Nakwaxda’xw K-7 School, still vividly recalls his childhood in isolated Kingcome Inlet where he sang, spoke and drummed with elders and how the “song inside us”—the vital connections to language and culture—kept him grounded when he was sent off to attend a Victoria school from Grade 7 and beyond. In high school, he’d skip classes to go to the provincial archives in order to transcribe tapes of his own language.
In a landmark 2007 study cited by Gordon, it was discovered that “suicide rates dropped to zero in communities in which at least half the members reported a conversational knowledge of their language … In contrast, where there was little or no connection to language, the suicide rate rose to six times higher than the national average.”
Everyone in We are Born with the Songs Inside Us has mastered the subtleties of communicating between generations, with parents from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds and with non-indigenous corporate and indigenous business clients.
Tewanee Joseph is a “lacrosse fanatic,” musician, key 2010 Olympics organizer and businessperson with a Squamish/Maori heritage. Beverley O’Neil is a marathon runner, stand-up comic and president of her own communications company, of Ktunaxa and Irish descent. Trudy Warner grew up in Grappler Creek, a community of four houses, and took a daily speedboat to attend school in Bamfield. She discovered her skill in communications when she began an entry level job in the Port Alberni treaty office, earning the respect of many during the long process.
Lisa Webster-Gibson, of Mohawk-Delaware-Scottish heritage, works as an environmental assessment technician. She also exhibits as a mixed-media artist and is a spoken word performer. Merle Alexander, with familial ties to the north coast village of Klemtu and a law practice in North Vancouver, is an accomplished, urban professional. Troy Sebastian, of the Ktunaxa First Nation, already a seasoned political candidate, is finishing his law degree at UVic.
For Penny White, marine biologist and photographer, a life-changing co-op program at Vancouver Island University reconnected her to Klemtu, the village of her grandparents. She is applying indigenous practices of ecosystem management, working with coastal First Nations, to harvest red seaweed commercially.
Lyana Patrick came to Vancouver from Fraser Lake to excel in sciences on her way to med school. Honoured with Fullbright and Vanier scholarships, she is now a filmmaker earning a Ph.D. in planning and mental health.
Internationally-exhibited Chemainus/Ladysmith carver John Qap’u’luq Marston and Sliammon/Powell River’s Evan Tlesla Adams have always applied physical and mental discipline to their great talent. “You can just be okay at what you do,” says Adams, “or you can be the kind of person who says, ‘Until the end of my days I will fight for the absolute best in myself and truly make a difference.’”
Given the momentum of the Idle No More movement, this is a timely anthology. Yes, there are grim problems; too many children living in poverty, children born with foetal alcohol syndrome who will not achieve the professional heights of the subjects of this book.
But this book belongs in every public library and high school library, where the indigenous student drop-out rate is nearly 60%. And it belongs in college and university libraries to reaffirm the dreams and sense of purpose of students and their teachers, indigenous and otherwise. 978-1550176186
[Caroline Woodward writes and works as a lighthouse keeper near Tofino where she is a big fan of Long Beach Radio’s Nuu-chah-nulth ‘Word of the Day’ and APTN TV. www.carolinewoodward.ca]
A farewell letter from Gino Odjick can be seen on the Vancouver Canucks’ website at canucks.nhl.com/club/news.htm?id=723992.