A Winnipeg volleyball player says she was disgusted after her coach said he should be allowed to use racial slurs while expressing his opinions about race and George Floyd, whose death during an arrest sparked protests for racial equality around the world.
Whitney Ashu, who immigrated to Canada from Cameroon, a country in West Africa, said the incident happened last week when she was at volleyball practice for the U15 Blue team of the Vision Elite Volleyball Club. The team is made up of mostly 14- and 15-year-old girls.
She said it started after her coach Ben Solmundson asked the team if they had read anything interesting lately. One of the players mentioned they were reading The Hate U Give, a book about a Black teenager who witnesses the shooting of her best friend by police.
At that, she says Solmundson started talking about the death of George Floyd, making comments that he was an addict and had a history of arrests.
Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is on trial for second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in Floyd’s death.
Ashu said she didn’t get involved in the discussion until Solmundson started telling the players that he had free speech and should be able to say whatever he wants, including the N-word.
“Then that’s when I got mad because he kept on talking about things that people of colour constantly have to deal with,” she said.
“So I got mad and then I told him that you can’t say the N-word because the N-word is an incredibly painful word, like it’s very hurtful and there’s years of history behind it.”
She said Solmundson told her the word didn’t matter, and said he proceeded to use a similar word, replacing the “i” in the slur with an “a,” in an attempt to get his point across. CBC News spoke with other teammates who were at the practice, who confirmed this happened, and said they were under the impression Solmundson was using a different pronunciation of the slur.
‘He has no idea what it’s like’
Ashu said she was shocked to hear an adult she trusted speak this way. She said she loves volleyball, and because she has practice three days a week, her coaches are a big part of her life, she said.
“He was trying to teach me what it’s like to be Black when he has no idea what it’s like,” she said.
“I didn’t know what to do. I never expected somebody who was trusted this much by my family and by others to say something like this.”
She said she’s not the only BIPOC player on the team, and that many of the players were very upset, even having to leave the gym. Some were left in tears, she said.
Ashu said she’s been told that another coach will be filling in for the rest of her team’s season, and she’s excited to work with them.
Ashu’s mom Pauline Takor said she confronted Solmundson after practice. She said he apologized for “dropping N-bombs” at practice. When she asked him what he meant by that, she said he admitted to using the racial slur.
CBC News made several attempts to contact Solmundson but did not hear back.
Alison McDougall, program director for Volleyball Winnipeg, said Solmundson was removed from the coaching team of the Vision Elite club after they were made aware of the incident. On Thursday morning, she said the organization has decided not to allow him to coach in any of its programs moving forward.
“Volleyball Winnipeg in no way condones or supports the use of derogatory language by any of its staff or representatives,” McDougall said.
Takor said her family emigrated from Cameroon about 10 years ago, thinking Canada was a welcoming place and its citizens were open-minded. She said this incident has shaken her and makes her worried that racist, divisive attitudes are becoming more prevalent in Canada.
“If we start getting things like this, I begin to wonder if Canada wants to copy what is happening south of our borders,” she said.
“Because every day we see that. We see what is happening inside of our borders with people of colour.”
Despite the fact that Solmundson is no longer a coach with Volleyball Winnipeg, some parents are still frustrated with how the organization and the head coach of the Vision Elite club handled the situation.
Kim Stevenson, the volunteer parent team manager for the team says she emailed the head coach Luc Tremblay the morning after the incident.
Though he said Solmundson wouldn’t be coaching that team anymore, Stevenson said that for close to a week, it was unclear to her and the rest of the parents whether he’d be involved with other programs run by Volleyball Winnipeg.
Then, on Wednesday, a letter was sent out to parents from Tremblay, saying Solmundson had been removed as the coach for all of the club’s teams.
However, in the letter Tremblay suggests Solmundson might be allowed to coach with the Vision Elite club in the future if he requested it.
“Should he ever ask for a path to redemption, one should be made available,” Tremblay wrote.
“It is my understanding he is thoroughly humiliated by his actions and has removed himself from any such consideration.”
Stevenson said she was frustrated by this letter as she felt Tremblay was placing the blame on parents for the fallout after bringing the incident forward.
“It still doesn’t take responsibility. It doesn’t acknowledge any of the … like all the racist attitudes that were spewed at those girls,” she said.
Tremblay did not respond to requests for comment. However, when asked about the letter, Volleyball Winnipeg reiterated that Solmundson would not be coaching in any of its programs moving forward.
John Blacher, executive director of Volleyball Manitoba, said the incident has been brought to his attention and also to the attention of Volleyball Canada’s independent, third-party Safe Sport officer. He said they are reviewing the matter to determine the process moving forward within its discipline and complaints policy.
“Volleyball Manitoba is committed to providing a safe, positive and respectful environment for the sport of volleyball and takes a serious approach to all concerns,” Blacher said.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of.