Former Hamilton Tiger-Cats first-round pick John Macdonald has embraced Indigenous identity as teacher, coach

The following is the first in what we hope will become a series of articles telling the stories of Indigenous CFL alumni in order to help address Truth and Reconciliation Commission Call to Action No. 87.

If you are an Indigenous CFL player who would like to tell their story, please contact JC Abbott on Twitter (@JC_AbbottCFL) or email [email protected]

A single line of text.

For most of his life and career, that is all people thought John Macdonald’s Indigeneity merited. A passing mention. A footnote.

He still recalls his draft profile on the old CFL website back in 2002, the tiny blurb tucked between his accolades and combine measurables. His whole identity summed up in one lone sentence.

“John, a North American native, is a member of the Upper Mohawk nation.”

When Macdonald entered the league as the first-round selection of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats that summer, little was written to flesh out the biography of the No. 7 overall pick — at least not by mainstream media outlets.

Aboriginal Peoples Television Network did a full profile on him. Turtle Island News was at Ticats camp almost every day to deliver the story to a rabid Six Nations fan base, but the major newspapers and broadcasters collectively shrugged.

“One thing when I got into the CFL that upset me was that mainstream media didn’t celebrate my Indigeneity,” Macdonald recalls of that time. “It was only sort of allocated to the Indigenous media outlets.”

John Macdonald isn’t the first Indigenous player to suit up in the CFL or even the highest profile. His on-field career was a short one, but his experience is emblematic of how little the history of Indigenous players, particularly those with national status, has been recorded.

They’ve always been here, but their identity has never been centred, elevated or praised. Each generation of Indigenous athletes marked by singular lines of text quickly forgotten by the reader.

This is a problem that runs throughout Canadian society. Growing up in the tiny farming community of Simcoe, Ont. as the son of a Scottish father and a Mohawk mother, Macdonald was used to being the only Indigenous person in the room during an era when that identity was something you kept close to your chest. He’s always been proud of his heritage, but it wasn’t always easy to show it.

“I told my Grade One teacher that I was half Indian and half person, because I just didn’t have the understanding of what it meant to be Native. I often heard comments from other kids,” Macdonald remembers.

“If you look at a picture of me at the time, I looked more Native, according to what the media believes a Native person should look like. But I could kind of hide my identity if I wanted to and that is a card that I played until basically I played in the CFL. I would only share my identity strategically based on the circumstances, which is what a lot of people do.”

Even when he chose not to place his Indigenous identity at the forefront, it was an integral part of his life. His father was an only child and so his social circle was always his mother’s large extended family and weekends were spent on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve.

He inherited a certain physical skillset as well, the stereotypically large thighs of the Scottish highlander and a Native barrel chest, a body type he believes was built for football. Macdonald recalls with a chuckle how he won the 60-metre dash as the fattest kid in sixth grade, the very same year he took to the gridiron at a University of Western Ontario football camp for the first time.

The sport came naturally and he attended every year, despite the fact there was no local community team for him to play on. When he finally got to high school, he took a beating as a ninth grader from the seniors in practice and began to hit the gym, drawing inspiration from old NFL Films videos. He’d go on to become the team’s best lineman for each of the next three seasons.

As his football career blossomed in high school, so did his understanding of his Indigenous ancestry. He wanted to learn more, choosing Indigenous peoples as the subject of a final project in one history course. His teacher gave him a Stats Canada book for research and Macdonald can vividly remember crying in the classroom as he learned for the very first time about residential schools, the resulting alcoholism and 24 percent suicide rate that was ravaging communities like his.

“To me, being Native was laughing with family, going to potlucks, being outside by the Grand River, going to Pow Wows and things like that,” Macdonald explains. “I never thought of the social challenges like that. I knew that there was poverty, but I didn’t know that there were so many issues in the community.”

Macdonald himself was excelling both on and off the field. He was lead saxophone in the school band, starred in the role of Chief Bromden in the class production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and was voted Prom King. After an MVP season in 1996, his coach called a friend at the University of McGill to make sure they didn’t miss out on a game-changing recruit.

For a small-town kid, the allure of big city Montreal was palpable, but the recruiting process was not without hang-ups. Macdonald remembers how his mother piped up in one recruiting visit, asking the coaches whether the school’s nickname, the Redmen, was making reference to Indigenous peoples.

She was told it didn’t and her son saw it as a serendipitous reference to his dual identities, a school named after a Scotsman that harmlessly nodded to his Indigenous heritage. It wasn’t until he arrived on campus that he learned a different history.

“They lied to us. They told us that it only referred to jersey colour, but what I discovered when I got there was they had a headdress logo in the eighties, there was chants about firewater and savages in the sixties and seventies, talk that the tribe was going to come get you and all these things,” Macdonald says.

While origins of the name was benign, the school had a long history of calling teams “Indians” and — even more offensively — “Squaws” for female athletes. At times they had leaned into the racist moniker. Macdonald felt betrayed and increasingly uncomfortable as he learned of that legacy, but never said anything at the time.

Years later, he would become one of the champions of the school’s change the name campaign, which succeeding in swapping Redmen for Redbirds in 2020.

Photo provided by John Macdonald / Credit: McGill Athletics

At the same time, McGill was a place of tremendous growth for Macdonald. He met his wife there and began taking courses in Indigenous Studies, becoming more connected to his heritage than ever before.

On the field, he played with future stars like J.P. Darche and Randy Chevrier, while carving out a fearsome reputation of his own. Fans dubbed him the “Prime Minister of Defence,” in reference to John A. Macdonald, a name he enjoyed at the time but views with considerable irony in retrospect given the mistreatment Indigenous peoples faced at the hands of Canada’s founding father.

Macdonald left McGill as the school’s all-time leader with 31.5 combined tackles for loss and sacks. He was a second-team All-Canadian defensive tackle in 2001, recording five sacks in six games before injuring his ACL, and was known for his all-out physical style of play, taking pleasure in running through opponents rather than around them.

At the 2002 CFL evaluation camp, he checked in at six-foot-two and 273 pounds, posting 29 reps on the bench and a blazing 4.93 second forty-yard dash. It was more than enough for the Tiger-Cats to draft him seventh overall, a dream come true for Macdonald. His family on Six Nations were die-hard football fans, cheering on the Ticats and Buffalo Bills, and his father had been a season ticket holder since John was six.

It was a homecoming for a kid who grew up going to games, but Macdonald entered the CFL tentatively. While the media hardly mentioned his Mohawk heritage upon arrival, he wasn’t sure it would stay that way if something went wrong.

“I even said to my teammates, if I do something wrong and step out of line, I think the mainstream media will pull out my Indigeneity. It’s not going to come out otherwise, it’s just a tidbit, but if I do something that’s out of line, lose it on the field or misbehave off it or in the locker room, it will be a story,” Macdonald admits.

“I thought to myself, ‘I need to be very cautious of that because the last thing I want is to tarnish the reputation of my people and Indigenous athletes.'”

That was a heavy burden to bear, one Macdonald says that the young Indigenous athletes he now coaches still deal with.

“It’s not fair that when you go on the road, you don’t only represent yourself, you represent Indigenous people as well, but that’s the reality,” he says. “People will leave with an impression, not only of you, but of your people.”

He quickly discovered a kinship with the Black athletes on the team that understood that sort of societal expectation. When he broke into the starting lineup in his second season, he recalls one particular moment in the locker room that made him feel seen and appreciated.

“They used to make the joke that I was the one white guy in the middle of all the Black guys on the defence and I can remember a time when a guy on the defence piped up and said, ‘Don’t call Johnny Mac white. He’s Native, that’s different. He may be part white, but he ain’t white like the rest of you guys,'” Macdonald remembers. “That was a big moment for me in terms of my identity.”

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

While people outside the Ticats rarely took note, Macdonald appreciated the teammates who took the time to celebrate his Indigenous heritage. In particular, he remembers sharing with quarterback Danny McManus in depth, whose college career was with the Florida State Seminoles, one of the rare sports teams that has a name sanctioned by the Indigenous tribe.

Those moments meant the world to Macdonald but not every interaction during his career was so kind.

“There’s always little stories of things that popped up. There’s a lot of negative stuff that I could paint, little comments here and there throughout my career as an athlete that in hindsight people just can’t believe were said, but I don’t want to get into that now,” Macdonald says.

The 2003 season was a difficult one for the Ticats. At 1-17, they were arguably the worst team in CFL history and Macdonald played nearly every snap on defence. He finished with 24 tackles, four sacks and an interception, but played large chunks of the year with a broken vertebrae in his back. Looking back, he made a mistake by playing, not wanting to disappoint his community or the hometown team.

“I didn’t have the heart to say no. I didn’t have the heart to abandon my teammates, to not be a part of the Tiger-Cats, which were so important to me,” Macdonald says. “I didn’t want to play for any other team. That was the home team for me. I got to the point where my body just fell apart.”

He played sparingly in 2004, replaced in the lineup by Adriano Belli. After the season, with offers from Ottawa and Winnipeg on the table, he chose to retire rather than leave the Tiger-Cats. That’s when the career of John Macdonald truly began.

Since his playing days in the CFL ended, Macdonald has carved out a much grander legacy as a teacher and coach. Throughout his own elementary, high school and university experiences, Macdonald had never met an Indigenous educator. The first was a counsellor at McKinnon Park Secondary in Caledonia, who took the young teacher aside and set him on a life-long path.

“The Native counselor there sat me down one day and said. ‘I know you don’t believe you have a lot to offer these kids because you grew up off reserve, but when I speak to you, I feel like I’m speaking to a Native person. Know that you can offer a lot to these kids,'” he explains, noting just what that impact can mean.

“When you have a teacher who’s from your demographic at any point throughout your education, your chances as a person from a marginalized group of going to college or university goes up 20 percent.”

For students around Six Nations, John Macdonald has been that person. In 2018, the Dreamcatcher Charitable Foundation gave him an award for achievements in Indigenous leadership in education.

As a coach, he’s had an impact as well, becoming a role model for youth in lacrosse, hockey, rugby and, of course, football. Three of his former athletes have made it to the CFL.

His first year after retirement, Macdonald coached a young Shane Bergman at Waterford Secondary, who recently retired with two Grey Cup rings and a 2019 CFL all-star selection under his belt. At Pauline Johnson Collegiate in Brantford, he helped send big David Knevel to the University of Nebraska and later the B.C. Lions, where he was briefly joined by fellow PJC alum Dakota Brush.

Photo provided by John Macdonald

Macdonald has tried his hand at being an Indigenous education consultant but found it unsatisfactory. He prefers the truly hands-on leadership style that he can impart in the classroom and on the field, something he sees as part of his Indigenous culture.

He now heads Pauline Johnson’s S.O.A.R. program, dedicated to developing elite level athletes in all sports. This year, he has a baseball catcher entering the MLB Draft and headed to Arizona on scholarship, a golfer on full-ride to Georgia, and countless others chasing their university dreams.

He’s head coach of the school’s football team as well, emphasizing providing the kids with the Indigenous role models in sport that he never had. Over the last several years, they’ve had as many as five Indigenous coaches on the coaching staff, virtually unheard of even in the area around Six Nations where many students have Indigenous ancestry.

Macdonald is in the early stages of writing a children’s book on his life story, with the hope he can inspire the Indigenous kids he can’t reach as a teacher. He wants the CFL to be a part of that outreach as well.

With the Grey Cup in Hamilton this year, Macdonald has already been in the ear of friend Matt Afinec, president and chief operating officer of business operations for the Ticats, about how they can make sure there is a strong Indigenous presence at the event. As more stories of Indigenous CFL alumni are told, he hopes they can be included in the celebration.

“Wouldn’t it be great if at the Grey Cup this year for the first time, you have a land acknowledgement statement and then just standing out there next to whichever person from the community does the land acknowledgement, you have Indigenous CFL alumni,” Macdonald proposes.

“It doesn’t even have to be that complicated, just an acknowledgement that we have Indigenous CFL players.”

For a group of players so often categorized by throw-away lines that are quickly forgotten, that acknowledgement would be monumental.

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