Edmonton Elks charging ‘into a future we can be proud to share together’: Senator Paula Simons

Photo courtesy: Paula Simons

The Canadian Football League has received a lot of attention on the floor of the Canadian Senate recently as they consider the legalization of single-game sports betting. When independent Alberta senator Paula Simons addressed the legislative body with a statement Thursday, it was for a very different reason.

The former political columnist and reporter with the Edmonton Journal, perhaps best known for her investigative work on Indigenous child welfare and government cover-ups of the deaths of children in foster care, had some powerful words on her hometown team’s recent name change and its importance after the discovery of the graves of 215 children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

“This week, honorable colleagues, Edmonton was proud to welcome its newly named CFL football team, the Edmonton Elks. The timing of this announcement couldn’t be more apt as we begin national indigenous history month and as we confront the truly horrifying news from Kamloops and as difficult conversations about how we name and how we remember are taking place coast to coast.

For many years, Edmontonians had debated changing the name of their storied football team. It was not an easy debate. Many felt a huge pride in their green and gold, in the team that was home to legendary players, including the likes of Jackie Parker, Johnny Bright, Rollie Miles, Norman Kwong, of Tom Wilkinson, Larry Highbaugh, Warren Moon, Gizmo Williams and Ricky Ray. It was the team that launched the political careers of two Alberta premiers, Peter Lougheed and Don Getty. But the team name, the name I grew up with, became more and more uncomfortable over the years, as we all had to confront the reality of its racist heritage.

The name itself was not only heard as a racial slur by many Inuit, it was a throwback from the days when many North American sports teams adopted indigenous mascots, a custom that was both patronizing and appropriative. Moreover, it was a name that had no connection to the actual First Nations peoples who called Treaty Six territory home. The pain caused by that casual racism is the truth we need to hear, the truth we needed to acknowledge before we could get to reconciliation.

I don’t believe the founders of Edmonton’s football dynasty meant anything malicious in the original choice of the name. It was adopted in a spirit of enthusiastic ignorance, as a sincere if woefully clumsy compliment to the courage and fortitude of Inuit people. But in 2021, it was a name out of time, a reminder of our colonial past and of attitudes that deserve to be part of history, not forgotten, but not celebrated.

So welcome Canada, the Edmonton Elks. Oh, I know pedants might argue that elk is already the plural form, but then Torontonians, loyally, doggedly, sometimes hopelessly, cheer for their Leafs and not their Leaves. Others might say that the animal in question is really a wapiti, but where’s the alliteration in that? Still, I’m happy to say most Edmontonians appear to be embracing their Elks with optimism and excitement, at least to judge by the run on the snazzy new Elks logoed merchandise.

The city is feeling upbeat, not just in hopes of a Grey Cup worthy season, but because Edmontonians feel this is a team name they can shout with pride. I’ve seen several people on social media saying they’ll attend their first ever CFL game this season because of the name change, because they will now feel welcome at Commonwealth Stadium where the Elks will play and where the Elks will win.

So antler up everyone and get ready, because when the Elks charge, they charge into a future we can be proud to share together. A future where we can honor the best of the past without clinging to the souvenirs of the worst. Thank you, merci and hay-hay.”

The Edmonton Football Team unveiled its new name on Tuesday and will now be known as the Edmonton Elks. The club announced its decision to discontinue using the name ‘Eskimo’ on July 17, 2020, a moniker that dated back to 1910, after years of protest from Inuit groups.

An Angus Reid poll conducted in August 2020 indicated that 57 percent of Canadians felt that Edmonton made the right decision to change its name. This percentage dipped among the CFL fans who were polled (47 percent) and for residents of Alberta (42 percent).

The findings also correlated strongly to political affiliation. Of those polled, only 28 percent who voted Conservative in the most recent federal election felt as though changing the name was the right decision compared to 79 percent of Liberal voters and 83 percent of NDP voters.