USA Today: Meet the man behind fight to keep Indians logo out of Canada

July 10, 2017

This article originally appeared in the Sports section of USA Today.

The Canadian History Hall will open on Canada Day in the Canadian Museum of History, where the fingerprints of Douglas Cardinal are everywhere.

He is the architect who designed the museum in the 1980s and who designed the hall that has its grand opening Saturday — just in time for Canada’s 150th birthday. The history that the new hall will tell, though, goes back 15,000 years. Cardinal, 83, is a celebrated Canadian architect of Blackfoot ancestry who sees the world always through aboriginal eyes.

Cardinal is also the architect of a legal case against the team name and logo of the Cleveland Indians. He argues that the name and so-called Chief Wahoo logo — an idiot-grinning, red-faced, big-toothed caricature — amount to discrimination under the Ontario Human Rights Code. He seeks a ruling that would bar the team from displaying the team name and the Wahoo image when the Cleveland team is playing the Blue Jays in Toronto.

Attorneys for Major League Baseball, the Cleveland team and Rogers Communications, owners of the Blue Jays, attempted to have the case thrown out on jurisdictional grounds, but Cardinal won interim decisions this month and last that have kept his case alive. The Ontario Human Rights Tribunal is set to hear the matter at a time to be determined.

“That logo is really outrageous and racist and offensive to all of our native cultures,” Cardinal tells USA TODAY Sports. “It is about time that people who have been here thousands of years, living in harmony with the land, be able to have their rights recognized. It doesn’t help when they have these images perpetuate racism and ridicule.”

All this comes at a time when legal challenges to the team name of the Washington NFL franchise appear set to go away. The Supreme Court ruled last week that federal trademark registrations may be granted in cases even where they are considered derogatory. That means a long-running case in which the Washington team’s registrations were canceled will almost certainly be overturned.

Cardinal despises Washington’s team name too, but that franchise rarely plays in Ontario — the Buffalo Bills beat Washington 23-0 in Toronto in 2011 — so he doesn’t have a claim in Canada. Still, Cardinal is familiar with the controversy over “Redskins” from his time in Washington in the 1990s as the original architect and project designer of the National Museum of the American Indian.

Douglas Cardinal is the original architect and project designer of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. (Photo: Douglas Cardinal Architect Inc.)

“We built on the mall right in front of the U.S. Capitol,” Cardinal says. “We had hoped to create a better understanding between the indigenous people of the land and the people in Washington who are making the decisions regarding our indigenous people. I think Washington should set an example for the rest of the country on how to have fair and just treatment and respect for the dignity of every American citizen.”

He believes the name of the Washington team sets an opposite example. And he thinks the same of Chief Wahoo.

“I always think if you are racist to someone else, or you ridicule another culture or race, you lack dignity, you lack respect for others,” Cardinal says. “They lose their dignity when they show that symbol.”

Cardinal originally filed his case during last season’s playoffs, hoping to stop the use and broadcast of the name and the Wahoo logo when Cleveland played Toronto in the American League Championship Series. The Supreme Court of Justice in Toronto rejected a request for an injunction.

Cleveland is not scheduled to play in Toronto again this season — the team played three games there in May — and a playoff rematch appears unlikely. “The Jays aren’t looking good for a wild-card spot,” says Paul-Erik Veel, Cardinal’s attorney, “so maybe that won’t be an issue this year, sadly.” He hopes the case will be decided before next season.

Veel says he has followed the legal proceedings concerning Washington’s NFL team name with interest but that his case is fundamentally different.

“We’re not challenging the trademarks that the Cleveland team has,” Veel says. “Our position, instead, is using the name and logos during the baseball games played at the Rogers Centre here in Toronto constitutes discrimination in the provision of a service, which is prohibited under the Ontario Human Rights Code.”

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred wants the Cleveland team to move away from its Chief Wahoo logo, as The New York Times reported in April. Cleveland has been taking half-steps away from it for several years; the block C is now the team’s primary logo, though the Wahoo image was displayed prominently when Cleveland played in last season’s World Series, won by the Chicago Cubs.

Cardinal is an Officer of the Order of Canada, one of his country’s highest honors, and he has received honorary degrees that run into double figures from many of Canada’s top universities.

“I wouldn’t say he is all the way to a household name in Canada,” Veel says, “but he is very well known in some circles, as an architect and an activist.”

Pierre Trudeau was prime minister of Canada in 1983 when he got a look at Cardinal’s curvilinear plans for the Canadian Museum of Civilization, later to be called the Canadian Museum of History. “I am a canoeist,” Trudeau told Cardinal, according to the Ottawa Citizen. “I understand these curves and the way they flow.”

Curves are an essential feature at the National Museum of the American Indian as well. “The building rises above the elm trees of the Mall like a monumental apparition,” Washington Post critic Benjamin Forgey wrote when it opened in 2004. “Its curving walls shout, ‘Look at me!’ ”

The Canadian Museum of History is on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River facing Canada’s capital of Ottawa, where today Trudeau’s son Justin is prime minister. The museum’s curving, flowing form remains its signature.

“I have devised an organic approach to architecture, connected to the land,” Cardinal says. “The settlers cut down the forests, polluted the rivers and created global warming. They didn’t understand natural law. We are part of nature, not above nature. You can’t pollute a river without polluting yourself.”

He thinks Chief Wahoo pollutes the airwaves and ballparks wherever the Cleveland team plays.

“As people who have been here thousands of years,” he says, “I think we have the right to be treated fairly by the immigrant culture that have come on these lands. So when I see something that is offensive to my Anishinaabe heritage, I feel that I have to, for the sake my children, speak out.”