What Joe McKnight’s death says about Canada and the CFL

Last winter, I did a story on an American player who had decided to stay in Canada over the off-season. There were a number of reasons why but this was the poignant one.

“I feel safer here. When I go back to the U.S. I always have to give a glance over my shoulder. I’m not saying that you don’t have racism in this country but I don’t feel like a black man here. I just feel like a man.”

I thought about that conversation last night as news of Joe McKnight’s shooting spread across the league. The reaction ran the usual gamut: shock, anger, disbelief, sadness, grief.

One tweet from Spencer Moore, McKnight’s Saskatchewan teammate, stood out to me.

McKnight could have stayed in Canada if he wanted. CFL players enter Canada on what’s called a closed work permit that allows them to work in the country but only for a specific employer (in this case, a CFL team.)

But for $150, a player can apply for an open work permit which would allow them to work for anybody. This happens to varying degrees around the league, influenced in many cases by the team and the community: for example, players in Saskatchewan or Calgary who want to get off-season employment can generally do so. In other markets, it can be tougher.

Even if a player doesn’t want to work, the end of the season doesn’t mean a player has to leave the country immediately. A significant number of players spend the off-season dedicated to their training and so where they spend that time matters little.

In other words, McKnight was in New Orleans yesterday afternoon because he wanted to be there, not because Canada wouldn’t let him stay.

Which is, of course, perfectly understandable. The majority of American-born players in the CFL return to the United States because that’s where their families are, their friends, the only life they’ve ever known.

They do so understanding the risks involved. According to a StatsCan report from 2012 (the most recent year available) Canada recorded just 172 firearms-related homicides: that same year, the U.S. suffered a total of 8,813 murders involving guns.

The shooting of Calgary Stampeder Mylan Hicks in September was a stark reminder that we are not immune to violent gun deaths in this country. But adjusted for population, Canada’s rate is about seven times lower than that of the United States.

It’s unlikely every international player in the CFL knows those stats but they understand them on a visceral level: many of them are intimately familiar with the spectre of violence. They go home anyway because, well, it’s home.

I didn’t know McKnight personally but I’ve known hundreds of players like him. His story is the quintessential CFL one for American players: an elite level high school player who has a stellar college career marred by controversy (McKnight missed his junior season at USC because of recruiting violations.) A checkered, uneven stint in the NFL. A chance at redemption in Canada and maybe, just maybe, a road back to The League.

American players don’t dream of playing in the CFL. They don’t dream of spending their winters in Regina or Edmonton or Winnipeg or Hamilton. Some of them come here, see the advantages and make a life here. We should make it easier for them to do that.

And that’s where we can do better. American players who decide to stay in Canada after their playing careers are done can spend thousands of dollars and years of their lives trying to get permanent residency status or citizenship. Ask Henry Burris, who – despite living in this country for more than a decade and having two Canadian-born, hockey playing sons, is still waiting.

The player I interviewed last winter stayed in Canada again this off-season. He’s met a girl and they’re engaged: he’s planning to build a life here, away from friends and family and most of his personal history. Being in this country doesn’t guarantee his safety, of course. But I feel better that he’s here.

Drew Edwards

Drew Edwards

Drew Edwards is into his eighth season covering the CFL and the Ticats for the Hamilton Spectator. He is the founder and editor of 3DownNation.
Drew Edwards
Drew Edwards
About Drew Edwards (1392 Articles)
Drew Edwards is into his eighth season covering the CFL and the Ticats for the Hamilton Spectator. He is the founder and editor of 3DownNation.

30 Comments on What Joe McKnight’s death says about Canada and the CFL

  1. Excellent article Drew!

  2. A few of the reasons that make Canada the best country on the planet. Well done, as usual, Drew.

  3. Doug McLellan // December 3, 2016 at 10:32 am //

    Matt Dominquez is another who moved to Regina in 2004 to establish his home here. He now has a successful business and is still involved in the Riders.

  4. Stephen Pichocki // December 3, 2016 at 10:35 am //

    Excellent article and spot on! We need to make it easier for international players to plant roots and stay here!

  5. Great article Drew. Years ago the CFL classified Imports & nationals solely by their citizenship. A US player who decided to stay and work in Canada during the off season and established a permanent residence could apply for Canadian citizenship after 5 years … just like any other immigrant. That player was then considered a Canadian or national player for a CFL team roster. Perhaps the CFL should consider implementing a similar policy again.

  6. Thanks for this article, well done.
    I personally hope that Canada can become a model society to Americans rather than a sanctuary. Difficult to do if they don’t know Canada in a manner that some football players do, but those lucky ones can take it back to the US and tell people about it. It’s going to be a long road.

  7. I ran into Burris and wished him luck with his citizenship. I told him that he already is a great Canadian, papers or not. He gave me a big ol’ grin.

  8. freelasagnahunter // December 3, 2016 at 11:20 am //

    Liberal Canadians jump at the stories like this to make themselves feel better . Is the “stand your ground” law problematic ? sure.
    Is the ridiculous laws in Canada where the VICTIM can be charged with defending themselves and property ? Of course.
    USA is not better or worse but different. Stop with the moralizing.

    • I agree, the laws are somewhat the same but also many differences. Both countries have some ridiculous laws. ‘Stand your ground’ can and will get you killed if the other party has a concealed weapon. But you cannot argue the numbers, even after adjusting for population, the USA is 7X WORSE for firearm related homicides…this is not moralizing, at least not in my opinion. This is a comparison and the author has done their best to compare apples to apples and I don’t believe he was trying to offend anyone. Just comparing numbers regarding ‘firearm related homicides’, nothing more, nothing less.

    • JJ murphy // December 3, 2016 at 3:01 pm //

      You are absolutely incorrect.
      Sections 34 and 35 of the Criminal Code are very clear on the right to self-defence, of person and property-
      Please stop with the bullshit false equivalency.

      • JJ murphy // December 3, 2016 at 3:03 pm //

        My comment was directed towards the lasagna hunter.

      • Billy Dee // December 4, 2016 at 8:46 am //

        And, the practical reality of Canadians availing themselves of those sections generally means that they are not available or the threshold is so high that the chances of a successful defence are negligible. Especially where a firearm is used for defence.

        And the “penalty by process” aspect of defending one’s self in Canada (multiple charges for one event, the court’s open hostility to firearms used in self defence, and the exorbitant expense in mounting such a defence; remember, the crown has deep pockets, most citizens have finite funds) means that even if you win, economically you lose.

        Careful accusing others of spreading bulLShit.

        • You also, are full of it Billy Dee.
          Again, there is no equivalency between the ridiculousness of the US gun laws and just so I understand what you’re saying, some lack of victim defence laws in Canada– is that some hidden problem in our society? It doesn’t seem to be blasting thorough the headlines.
          By any rational measure, their laws are worse in this area.
          And I say this as a non-restricted and as of this year, restricted license holder, for what that’s worth.

    • Lennywasout // December 4, 2016 at 7:25 am //

      I don’t care which country in the world one lives in. To die in a traffic argument is unwarranted/outragios. Shout and scream all you want but to shoot an unarmed man and then claim ” he scared me” is exactly what is wrong with the US. If hand guns were outlawed logic dictates there would be fewer deaths. The way the “stand your ground” law is applied has way too many loopholes, so those who may be guilty don’t go to trial. Sorry, but maybe in my old age I’ve mellowed and become a “liberal”.

  9. Great article. The situation south of us is awful. I hope that more and more players make Canada their home. There should be an a few roster spots on each team for players, who stay here/ play here for a few years, that allows them to count as nationals.

  10. Hans Viergever // December 3, 2016 at 11:49 am //

    What a powerful article, Drew.

  11. Great piece Drew.

  12. Joseph Agnello // December 3, 2016 at 12:06 pm //

    what was he doing in the deep outh if he felt so much safer in Canada? if you’re visiting friends and relatives, invite them to Canada to visit. if they can’t afford to travel, pay their way. you made a good living. if all people feel so comfortable in their safe zone, why bother leaving. I don’t believe the whole story has come out.

  13. Thank you for sharing this with us. Your perspective, insights and knowledge are always welcomed especially at times like this.

  14. Solara2000 // December 3, 2016 at 3:01 pm //

    I think the real message is the futility of a life lost young by violence. Wherever a person is from is home and any decision to immigrate to a foreign country has to be right for that person. I agree our laws and our people (us) should be inviting – no we don’t need a wall – while ensuring citizenship is a privilege that is welcomingly shared with those who see that value and wish to add their contribution to making Canada the great home we enjoy.

  15. The headline made me cringe with fear … the article was actually quite good.

  16. GreenHoneyBee // December 3, 2016 at 4:14 pm //

    Great article!!! Thing that stuck out is that Henry Burris still hasn’t gotten citizenship, if that is still correct smh…why is it so hard given he has lived here over a decade?, minus the fact he plays, football or even has kids… He has contributed to Canadian society for over a decade. Anyways RIP Joe, we were looking forward to your return to Riderville. And though we miss you in Regina, after listening to that newscast with that Sheriff releasing the guy who shot you three times comfortably from his vehicle and trying to justify releasing him without charges… if it takes your death to get rid of that sheriff in office and clean up the town… then so be it and thank you for bringing about social change for All the people…unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.John 12:24

  17. Canada is the best country in the world.

  18. I love when current and former players put down roots and stay in Canada,but Drew what are you inhaling?There are many people who come to Canada and want to stay and there are lots of Canadians who have Family that they would love to have here!But there is a process and to suggest that the process should be made easy for someone because they can run fast,throw a football,tackle or catch a football might be the most stupid thing i have ever heard you say up to this point.Maybe you should talk to pinball he recently became a Canadian Citizen and he followed the process went by the rules and i am proud he is Canadian even if he was an Argo.Listen to come to one of the Greatest Countries in the World should not be that easy.

    • Great that you are proud of Pinball.

      How about Burris who spent thousands plus three years to be told the application was rejected as something like seventeen years in the CFL plus paying taxes was not considered “full time” employment.

      Meanwhile, people who have been in the country, working full time for a lot less than Burris have, not only have been granted citizenship but have been allowed to bring their children (no problem for Burris as his kids are Canadian citizens).

      Whether it is changed or not – the process does not seem consistent.

  19. The CFL could put an amendment the Canadian / American classification. If amy American played for the same team for 5 years. In year #6 they would be considered a Canadian.

    If they sign with another team then they revert back to American on the new team.

    If they play in the CFL for 8 years. Year # 9 they would be considered Canadian for any team.

  20. I absolutely believe in every law abiding citizen’s right to own firearms, but they should not be allowed to leave the house ( unless the gun is used for legal hunting purposes).

    A gun in every home to protect against intruders should be the only legal way for someone to use a gun ( unless hunting). This would help prevent unfortunate situations such as this one and no loopholes for violators.

  21. Years ago Rod Hill retired from playing corner for the Bluebombers and a reporter asked him why was he staying in Winnipeg. Rod joked that he would rather dodge snowballs in Winnipeg than bullets in Detroit. I will remember this story now when ever I think of Joe McKnight. I do wish that all of our american players find their way back home safely and we see them again next summer.

  22. Doug McLellan // December 6, 2016 at 9:06 am //

    Going down to Phoenix in the winter, it is understood that we should avoid road rage, as every 2nd car down there has a gun. In this case if Joe would have turned the other cheek and just left he would probably be okay now. That saying, it does not make what the other guy did okay. He should be prosecuted!

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