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.

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