Hon. Marty Klyne: Honourable senators, I rise today to pay tribute to elder Fred Sasakamoose, the first First Nation hockey player of treaty status to play in hockey’s top league, the National Hockey League, the NHL.
Fred was born in my home province of Saskatchewan on December 25, 1933. He was admitted to hospital on November 20 this year in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, where he was diagnosed with COVID-19. He passed away four days later after suffering complications from the coronavirus. He passed away only three weeks ago, on November 24, one month before his eighty-seventh birthday.
Back in his youth, for a kid from the reserve to think about becoming a hockey player in the mainstream, let alone an NHL player, would have been seen as highly unlikely and, by many, impossible, but against all odds, through hard work and resilience, Fred endured.
He was raised by his parents on the Cree First Nation band of Ahtahkakoop 104. He was one of 11 children, although only 5 survived past childhood, with 6 of the children lost to smallpox.
Like many First Nation children taken away from their family and forced to attend residential school, Fred, along with his brother Frank, were sent to a residential school 96 kilometres away in Duck Lake. It would be two years of troubled times and sordid details at the residential school before he and Frank saw their parents again.
While playing on the Duck Lake residential school hockey team, a priest saw Fred as an exceptional hockey player. The priest had a hockey scout visit Fred’s home when Fred was 15. That was followed by Fred Sasakamoose being drafted by the Moose Jaw Canucks at the age of 16.
Fred showed up to play for the Canucks, and play he did. In that 1953-54 season with the Canucks, he scored 31 goals in 34 games and was named the most valuable player in the Western Canadian Junior Hockey League. During that season, Fred was called up by the Chicago Blackhawks in November and made his NHL debut, playing two games before being sent back to the Moose Jaw Canucks. Fred was called up again a few months later, after the Canucks’ season ended in February 1954, playing a total of 11 games for the Chicago Blackhawks in 1953-54 NHL season.
Hockey was more than a game for Fred; it was a way of life, and his success and passion were recognized by the Chicago Blackhawks. In ensuing years, after playing in the minor leagues, Fred entered a life of service to the Ahtahkakoop community. He eventually regained his Cree language, taken from him as a child, and served for 35 years as a councillor and as chief for six years.
Colleagues, Fred’s commitment to developing the capacity for Indigenous and non-Indigenous participation cannot be understated. Beginning in 1961, he promoted youth in sports, and in 1962, he was a founding member of the Northern Indian Hockey League. He was also a founding member of the Saskatchewan Indian Summer Games and Saskatchewan Indian Winter Games, Saskatoon’s All Nations Hockey School and the Fred Sasakamoose All Star Hockey Week.
Fred was honoured by the Chicago Blackhawks at a home game in 2002, served on the NHL Ethnic Diversity Task Force and became a board member for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. He was inducted into Saskatchewan’s Sports Hall of Fame in the builder category in 2007, and he was named as a member of the Order of Canada in 2018.
In that same year, he received an honorary doctorate in law from the University of Saskatchewan. During his convocation, Fred humbly said:
Time will come when I will no longer be here, but my voice you will always use.
And of that I have no doubt, elder Sasakamoose.
At the time of his death, his autobiography entitled Call Me Indian: From the Trauma of Residential School to Becoming the NHL’s First Treaty Indigenous Player was being finished and is due to be on the shelves on April 6, 2021.
My condolences to Loretta, Fred’s wife of over sixty years, their children, grand-children, great grand-children, their community —
Hon. Leo Housakos (The Hon. the Acting Speaker): Honourable colleagues, I would like to remind you all that statements are supposed to be done within the confines of three minutes.
Senator Klyne: May you rest in peace, Fred, knowing your voice lives on. Thank you.