In just over one month, if all the pieces finally fall into place, the B.C. Lions will open training camp at Hillside Stadium in Kamloops. As a passionate CFL fan, that prospect should fill me with joy and excitement, but I, like many people, have been having trouble feeling that about anything in recent days.
That’s because if you were to leave B.C. Lions training camp next month, exit the stadium onto a road named after a slaveholder, take a left on a street named after Columbus and make your way onto the highway, in little more than 12 minutes you would arrive at Kamloops Indian Residential School, where the bodies of at least 215 children lie in unmarked graves.
Their discovery last week sent shockwaves across the country, and justifiably so, but their existence was not a secret. Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc leadership called it ‘a knowing’ in their community and the fact you were more likely to die in a residential school than in the Second World War was something I was taught in high school. Yet the national reaction has too often bordered on surprise, indignation and deflection.
This country is facing a reckoning and right now sports feels wholly unimportant, but as a Canadian cultural institution the CFL will have a role to play in addressing our past, present and future. Statements have been made, buildings lit up in orange and the recent name change of the Edmonton Elks has been praised as a necessary first step. Still, it is action, not words or gestures, that is needed.
Many of us have grappled with that very question over the last week. What actions can we take? Educating ourselves and elevating the voices of Indigenous people comes first, but what else can be done? That’s exactly what prompted me to sit down and write this.
Six years ago, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued 94 Calls to Action to address the ongoing impact of residential schools on survivors and their families. So far, only a handful have been completed. 22 are currently described as ‘stuck.’ But one of the Calls to Action applies directly to those of us who cover the CFL.
87. We call upon all levels of government, in collaboration
with Aboriginal peoples, sports halls of fame, and other
relevant organizations, to provide public education that
tells the national story of Aboriginal athletes in history.
I hereby declare that 3DownNation is a relevant organization and we have some serious work to do, but to do it we need your help.
I set out on a mission earlier this week to research the history of Indigenous athletes in the CFL for an article, the same sort of historical investigation I’d previously undergone when writing about the early history of Black athletes in Canadian football. I quickly encountered an issue.
It seems beyond the existence American quarterback Jack Jacobs, who came from the Muscogee Nation in Oklahoma, the history of Indigenous athletes in Canadian football has been nearly completely unrecorded and those born in Canada are especially absent from the narrative.
Beyond a handful of more modern players, most notably safety J.R. Larose, almost nothing has been written down about players of First Nations, Metis or Inuit ancestry. I contacted CFL historians and academics in Indigenous sport history. Each could offer only tidbits or well-wishes. Not even a concise starting point for research could be gleaned.
Now I’m turning to you, the fans, to help make this project a reality.
CFL fans are an obsessive bunch. You follow your team for decades, you remember obscure factoids and you know the history. Now that can be put to good use.
I have set up an email account for tips on this project ([email protected]) and my DMs are always open on Twitter (@JC_AbbottCFL). If you have any information regarding the history of Indigenous athletes in the CFL, U Sports or in Canadian football in general, I encourage you to pass it along by those means, no matter how trivial.
If you are comfortable, spread this article widely so it can be seen by more fans. Talk to others and pick the brain of the older generation. If you are a former player of Indigenous ancestry, I want to hear from you. If you are an Indigenous person with information on a historical player from your community, I want to tell their story.
I do not know what the result of this project will be, if I will be flooded with hints or if the information is lost to the archives. Either way, I feel a moral obligation to take the action I can in the area in which I am qualified.
I call on the Canadian Football League to do the same. For a league that so loudly trumpets more than a hundred years of history, it has done a poor job recording it or rendering it accessible. Along the way, some people get left out of the narrative that we now tout when saying ‘Diversity is Strength.’
It is time for that to change and I hope everyone will contribute whatever they can to this small but meaningful act of reconciliation.