Cavalry’s Wheeldon committed to keeping discussion going on racism, social justice

Several days have passed since every CPL player and all eight coaches, as well as league staff members, came together in a show of support for people of colour, the Black Lives Matter movement, racial equality and a variety of other social justice issues.

Cavalry FC coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr. was proud to take part in the moving demonstration during the Cavs’ match against Atlético Ottawa last Thursday. But he also hopes that it wasn’t a one-off, and that it leads to continued discussions and more activism by everybody involved both on and off the pitch.

Atlético and Cavalry were joined by players from the other six CPL teams for a moment of solidarity before their Island Games match kicked off. The players from the other six teams stood locked hand-in-hand on the far touchline, and all CPL players wore Black Lives Matter shirts and took a knee during the playing of the Canadian national anthem. That was followed by a moment of silence from every CPL player.

A second moment of silence came at the 8:46 mark of the game when play officially stopped to honour George Floyd, the Minnesota man who was killed in June when a police officer held his neck to the ground for eight minutes and 46 seconds.

It had a profound effect on Cavalry’s players, especially fullback Nathan Mavila, who is black.

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“We asked them how they felt afterwards. Nathan Mavila was very open about it and said, ‘I don’t feel alone anymore.’ That just blew my socks off me,” Wheeldon recounted.

Wheeldon admitted it was a powerful and moving moment to be a part of for him personally, but he also insists it can’t stop there. He stressed that more has to be done on a daily basis, starting with individuals having important conversations about issues of race and equality within their circle of friends, family members and co-workers.

“I think what it did was put (these issues) before the game. I felt it. It was powerful. It was powerful to see all the players and coaches and people around it, and it was powerful to see the response around it. Let’s hope it’s not just that. Let’s hope that we each start with our own circles and keep promoting positivity, and social justice and equality for everybody,” Wheeldon said.

An Englishman who immigrated to Canada, Wheeldon, who is white, is putting his mouth where his money is, and explained that he’s had these important discussions with his players and staff, including Cavalry vice-captain Elijah Adekugbe.

“Tofa Fakunle, he played (for Cavalry) briefly last year; I’ve known him since he was 13 or 14 – him and Elijah Adekugbe (who are both black) came up through the Foothills system … I love Tofa’s human values. He’s seen a lot with his family. He has a Nigerian background and has a good head on his shoulders. We talk often about how can we see things from this perspective, and what can we do to be better within our circle before we start asking others to change,” Wheeldon said.

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It’s also important to have players who are persons of colour or minorities in important roles on CPL teams so they can have a greater effect on social changes.

“We have Elijah Adekugbe, who is young black captain (and) a leader. He’s a leader of young men, and when you start promoting and rewarding (these players), not just based on their colour but on their human elements, that’s how it starts. Because then you want them to be role models for other communities,” the Cavs coach explained.

For Wheeldon, it’s also important that people take the time to educate themselves about issues they don’t necessarily know a lot about.

When Wheeldon was named CPL coach of the year for 2019, the trophy he received was a soapstone carving of an owl by an Inuit artist from Kinngait (Cape Dorset), Nunavut. That inspired him to learn more about Canada’s Indigenous communities.

“I was humbled to win the coach of the year award and that be the trophy, and it set me on a path. When my son, who is 11, starts coming to me to ask about the First Nations, you start to think, ‘You know what? There’s a lot I don’t know.’ And I think that’s what we have to keep doing – to be open to learning,” Wheeldon said.