Too often, the heroic stories of successful “firsts” completely overlook the people who tried before them.
When we talk about women’s history, we often speak in terms of “firsts.” The first women to do this or that, the first woman of this type to do that thing. For good reason, the women who achieve these historic firsts are hailed as trailblazers. They open the door for others, letting girls like them know that it’s not impossible to achieve their dreams. But being the first is a tough road, and one truly can be the loneliest number. The narratives around these trailblazers frequently frame them as the exception to their demographic, shining beacons of possibility who overcome nearly impossible odds. But what about those who came before them? What about the “almosts” that paved the way for the “firsts”?
Too often, the heroic stories of successful “firsts” completely overlook the people who tried before them. While their victories may seem smaller from the outside, the struggle was just as mighty.
The ones who searched for the jumping-off point so the next girl could take the leap. While many may not know their names, the communities they represent and women’s sports as a whole continue to feel their impact today. In hockey, one of those women is Faith McDonald.
A Cree woman from Nelson House, Manitoba, Faith McDonald played in the 1990s and early 2000s. Back then, women’s hockey had only recently been brought to the international stage and was just beginning to garner mainstream attention. It was still incredibly hard for the women of the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation to access. She set her own “first,” as the first Aboriginal woman to join the Olympic Oval High-Performance Female Hockey Program, playing for the Calgary Lightning in the Alberta Senior AA Female Provincial. The same program would birth the Calgary Oval X-Treme of the Western Women’s Hockey League, hosting names like Cassie Campbell and Hayley Wickenheiser.
Profiled once in 1995 by the Toronto Star and once in 2002 by Chatelaine, author Laura Robinson vividly explained how McDonald was failed by lack of resources despite her incredible talent. Explaining how she played on a boys’ team for years because there were no girls’ team in the area, McDonald said: “I dream of making the women’s national team someday, but it’s hard because you have to travel out of town, and we have money problems. There’s four kids in our family. The band office gives me money for travel and accommodation to go to games, but I have to pay it back when I can.” Her coach added: “She skates circles around the guys, even a lot of the high school players. She knows how to take the puck hard to the net, she’s not afraid to mix it up with the guys, and she’s smart around the net. But her opportunities are so limited, it’s frustrating. She’s not being held back by talent. She’s held back by economics.”
McDonald earned a scholarship to Athol Murray College of Notre Dame Saskatchewan early in the existence of its women’s hockey program. The illustrious program would go on to host players like Taylor Woods and Delaney Collins. McDonald achieved this not only because the obstacles she had overcome made her stronger, but also because she had the support of her community to help her navigate uncharted territory. Robinson details how those in McDonald’s community helped arrange rides to the women’s team that was an hour away, helped her travel home after committing to Athol Murray College of Notre Dame’s program, and otherwise advocated for her.
The time McDonald spent in Notre Dame’s program led to her achievement as the first aboriginal woman to compete in the Olympic Oval program, but it wasn’t done alone, and McDonald wanted others to know that. In 2002, when she won the Manitoba Aboriginal Youth Achievement Award in Sports, her speech made sure that people knew that being the first didn’t mean she was the only one. “I love hockey. Hockey is my life and I know there are lots of other Aboriginal girls out there who can play hockey as well as I can. I’ve played against them and I hope they decide to follow their dream, too.”
Faith McDonald knew that there were other Aboriginal girls with the same skill level as her, and soon, the world at large began to see it. Fourteen years later, Métis woman Jocelyne Laroque would win gold with Team Canada. Bridgette Lacquette, a First Nation’s woman who would grow up seven hours south of where McDonald was raised, would make her debut for Team Canada’s senior team at the Women’s World Champion before playing in the 2018 Olympics. The two-time Clarkson Cup Champion for the Calgary Inferno is cited as an inspiration for up-and-coming women’s players in the NCAA like Carrigan Umpherville and Saige McKay at Long Island University. Twin sisters Jordyn and Kyla Bear from the Ochapowace First Nation accepted scholarships to the Rochester Institute of Technology for hockey and mentioned Lacquette as their mentor, wanting to make the Olympics just as she had. Many may not know the name Faith McDonald or the fellow Aboriginal players cited in her speech, but we still feel the impact of what they did in the 1990s when players like the Bear sisters have opportunities that were almost unthinkable one short generation ago.
Bridgette Lacquette has become a role model, frequently visiting schools, hockey clubs, and educational programs with First Nation girls, as well as her ties to the Dreamcatcher Foundation. Organizations like True North and Indigenous Sport and Wellness Ontario show the activism from First Nation communities at large to fight against the systematic failures they’ve faced in sport and elsewhere.
Players like Bridgette Lacquette fight for awareness and hopefully elimination of the very problems that Faith McDonald and her coach pointed out. From the lack of resources for many young indigenous women to play hockey, to lack of facilities and attention from scouts, the failures and oversights of the more privileged in the hockey world have daily ramifications on the game and the women who play it. This frustrating history is just as much a part of hockey as the women who succeeded in spite of it, but their work helps to ensure that future generations of indigenous athletes aren’t held back by the same hurdles.
Faith McDonald is just one of many women whose stats are not publicly available, whose name can’t be found on any IIHF roster, and whose highlights aren’t on youtube, but have helped grow the game into what it is today. If there’s any way to thank her, it’s by continuing to fight against anti-Indigenous sentiment in hockey and supporting organizations like True North or the Dreamcatcher Foundation. Knowing who started to crack the glass ceiling is just as important as knowing who shattered it and knowing what societal conditions put it there in the first place.
Images courtesy of Notre Dame Saskatchewan Women’s Hockey