Former NHL player Jordin Tootoo has been a vocal advocate and role model for Indigenous communities as the first Inuk to play in the hockey league. In 2014, he published a book about his life, called All the Way: My Life on Ice.
But it took some time for Tootoo, who grew up in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, to feel comfortable sharing his journey, he said.
“We all have a story to tell. And for us Indigenous people, it may be a little tough to express your feelings and articulate your thoughts and put them to words,” the former Nashville Predator said during a recent Scotiabank event.
“I grew up in an environment where not a lot was talked about. It took a lot of years for me to be able to be open and honest and to be comfortable and content in my own skin. As each individual recognizes those things, I think it'll empower a lot of our people to share their stories.”
Tootoo was drafted by Nashville in 2000, and in 2003, he became the first Inuk to suit up for the NHL. He went on to play 13 seasons in the NHL, including for the Detroit Red Wings and the New Jersey Devils, before announcing his retirement in 2018.
Photo: Jordin Tootoo, Retired NHL player.
In 2010, as his hockey career was on the rise, Tootoo checked himself into rehab for alcohol addiction.
“It wasn’t until I entered rehab for my substance abuse that I started to realize who I am as a person, where I come from, my culture, my traditions,” he said. “It was probably two or three years into sobriety, where I started to really feel comfortable and content in my own skin. And once you feel that, you’re able to start expressing your story, you start sharing your story because you are proud of who you are.”
Tootoo was speaking at Scotiabank’s event to mark National Indigenous Peoples Day, which comes at a difficult time for Indigenous communities across the country. The discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential school has left many reeling, and in mourning. Last week, the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan said it found hundreds of unmarked burial sites near the former Marieval Indian Residential School.
Tootoo said on Twitter that the week of the discovery in Kamloops was “one of the toughest of my life.” As I learn more about the pain and suffering that was inflicted on my elders and ancestors, I feel rage. I feel the injustice to my core,” he wrote. “And, yet, I feel hope. We are talking about it. We are confronting it. And now, finally, healing can begin.”
During the virtual event, Tootoo said “we will come together as a nation, as a group, and help educate the average Canadian. A lot of people that I’ve talked to over the last few months didn’t realize that they live close to residential schools, or that the history of what happened was right at their back door. Now, everything is starting to come to light and the process is going to take many years. And we’ve got to be comfortable with that.”
Tootoo has also been working to give back through the Team Tootoo fund, which he established in 2011 in honour of his late brother, Terence. The fund’s goal is to support a wide range of charitable causes, including non-profits addressing suicide awareness and prevention, as well as those supporting youth at risk.
He said he aims to help Indigenous youth who are going through tough times through his foundation.
“It's been a great way to share my success and to show people that I owe my success to you guys,” Tootoo said. “It is because of you guys I am able to do what I’m what I’m doing today, throughout my hockey career. I did it for our people and to pave the way.”