Bear, 23, is from Ochapowace Nation in southern Saskatchewan and wore the jersey for the “Battle of Alberta” exhibition match against the Calgary Flames, with permission from the NHL.
“It will be an honour to wear this jersey tonight,” said Bear before the game in a press release. “I feel like I will be wearing it for all those Indigenous players who came before me and those Indigenous kids dreaming of playing in the NHL.”
Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild, from Maskwacis, Alta., said in the press release that Bear’s jersey was a historic gesture.
It took many years for the United Nations to declare that Indigenous communities have the right to revitalize and use their languages, including the Cree syllabics writing system, for their own names and places they live, said Littlechild, who is the international chief for Treaties 6, 7 and 8 in Saskatchewan and Alberta.
Cree is one of the most widely spoken Indigenous languages in Canada, but is declining in use. For decades Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools, where they were taught English and forbidden to speak their mother tongue or else face severe punishments.
Watch: The first ever Cree language broadcast of Hockey Night In Canada. Story continues below.
“Residential schools were a systematic, government-sponsored attempt to destroy Aboriginal cultures and languages and to assimilate Aboriginal peoples so that they no longer existed as distinct peoples,” the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada said in its 2015 report.
“More than a century of cultural genocide has left most Aboriginal languages on the verge of extinction.”
Littlechild is a member of Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame for his own athletic achievements in hockey and swimming at the University of Alberta and for creating opportunities for Indigenous athletes, such as founding the first all-Indigenous junior hockey team in the province, the North American Indigenous Games and the World Indigenous Nation Games.
Littlechild noted that the bear represents sacred teachings of courage.
“Ethan brings all of us great pride with his strength and natural ability to overcome challenges,”Littlechild said.
“People everywhere will be reminded when they see the syllabics on Ethan’s jersey to have courage, be confident and be brave.”
Fans were impressed with Bear’s decision to wear the jersey.
Sports apparel company Pro Am Sports is selling the jersey and tweeted that it worked with the Bear family to get the name plate right.