Travels with Myself

A Journal of Discovery and Transition
Doug Jordan, Author

37. The CFL and the Grey Cup – Symbols of Canada

I’m an unabashed Canadian Football League Fan, and for a number of reasons. And the Grey Cup Festival (it’s more than a game) is the acme of the enterprise. 

(Enterprise, Noun, 1. a project or undertaking, especially a bold or complex one)

I’m also an unabashed Canadian patriot, though these days it seems harder and harder to keep the ken, hold fast to my values and beliefs, else risk the slander of being an unwoke racist. I’m not ashamed of my Canadian heritage. My European forebears, mostly from the British Isles, risked everything to start a new life and carve a home out of the backwoods of Canada. (More on that later.) They were naïve dreamers but their fortunes in the ‘old country’ were little better, likely worse, and so they had to find grit or die, and many of them did. But those that in their various ways survived, even thrived, built this country. These pioneers, proud, imprudent, impetuous, and persevering, deserve our admiration and reverence. Canada, at least Upper Canada, was still largely an empty wilderness in the 1830s and 40s, but fifty years later it was a somewhat settled land with thriving towns, railways and roads in a still young country. Canada became a ‘real’ country thanks to the genius and vision of Sir John A. MacDonald and the grab-bag consortium of founding fathers that had forged the Dominion. Yes, the politicians deserve some credit, but it was really the immigrants of the time that carved farms out of the forests, and built mills and towns and started businesses, and failed then started over, these are the ones who really built this country. It was an amazing achievement of which I am very proud.

I have always been a student of history, and in particular Canadian history. I have read The Canadian History Series in my youth (and intend to reread them as soon as I finish re-reading Winston Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples); I’ve read Conrad Black’s recent trilogy, Rise to Greatness, and a number of biographies of famous, and more often obscure Canadians. I’m currently reading Sisters in the Wilderness, a biography by Charlotte Gray about Catharine Parr Trail and Susanna Moodie (the Strickland sisters) who settled in the back woods of Peterborough and wrote books about their experience. I’ve been intrigued by the sisters’ stories since I was a youth living in Peterborough and now in my advanced years my interest is renewed. The Stricklands settled on the shores of Lake Katchawanooka in the 1830s and relocated out of exhaustion later to the Belleville area in the 1840s. My Mother’s family emigrated to Canada in the 1840s from Yorkshire and settled near Frankford (a little northwest of Bellville); my great-grandfather Holden moved to Ashburnham (on the east side of the Otonabee River from Peterborough) in the 1880s and started a market garden. My great grandfather Jordan was a Barnardo orphan who landed in Toronto as a youngster. As I read the history of the Stricklands I can’t help but wonder what my own ancestors experienced when they first arrived in Canada 150 years ago. When I tour the old towns of Ontario, when I visited the village of Stella, the site of my novel The Treasure of Stella Bay, I can’t help but be swept away by the echoes of the past.

As a sentimental historian there are three things that make me well up: Dominion Day, Remembrance Day, and Grey Cup Day. These are the three shining examples of what makes Canada culturally separate from every other country in the world, and it is this heritage that must be preserved if we wish to safeguard our separate identity. Canada is a country of immigrants, as we are often reminded to say, and in the last fifty years Canada has been welcoming immigrants from all over the world, and creating a society that increasingly reflects the entire world’s makeup, not just Canada’s founding peoples’ homelands. I accept that in time, as the world shrinks and shrinks because of modern communication and travel technology, humanity will become increasingly one; unique and distinct cultures and languages will disappear and meld into one state, one homogeneous race. But not today. I did not agree/do not agree with Pierre Trudeau’s cynical[1]policy of multiculturalism; and I certainly dismiss Trudeau fils’ flippant and arrogant comment that he is the leader of the world’s first post-national state, because ‘there is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada’ (this last remark may be, sadly, correct). I accept Marshall McLuhan’s notion that the future of humanity will be post-national but the transition will not be swift or easy. Human beings are genetically wired to be tribal; for a million years it took a village to survive invaders from other villages. Human beings are inherently tribal, parochial, xenophobic. The human race is in no hurry to be fully integrated. And celebrating diversity is not helping this. Canada is not a diverse society, it is a motley collection of segregated communities. Go to Toronto, or any large city in Canada, and even of the cities in the greater Toronto 905 belt, and watch diversity in action – entire neighbourhoods occupied by mostly one race or another, squads of people of the same race in shopping malls, not interacting with other homogeneous groups. Rare do you find multi-racial groups congregated together for some common social purpose. This is the current state of ‘diversity’ – separate sollitudes; integration may one day happen, but not today.

In the meantime, where does that leave Canadian cultural identity? Can we even claim there is such a thing as a ‘Canadian Culture’ when we are so busy celebrating everyone else’s culture? Maybe Trudeau fils is right. 

What does this have to do with the CFL and the Grey Cup? Well, obviously, I think, they are symbols of Canada’s unique identity and a heritage that must be protected and preserved. 

Canadian football, and by extension, the Grey Cup, has deep historical roots. Rugby football emerged in the 1860s, apparently at the University of Toronto, evolving from the English game of ‘rugby’[2]. Certain usurpers from Harvard make a similar origination claim – in fact a game was played between Harvard University and McGill University in 1872, but the twain never was to meet and the game evolved separately with subtle though significantly different rules. I find it cognitively dissonant to think of rugby being played in Montreal at about the same time as the Strickland sisters were roughing it in the bush in Peterborough, two solitudes of another sort back then.

The Canadian Rugby Football Union was formed in 1880 to regulate the game across the various Interprovincial Unions. It was another eighty years before the CFL was formed to govern the nine professional teams then competing and created the West Division and the East Division.

The Grey Cup was donated to the CRFU by Albert, 4th Earl Grey[3], at the time the Governor General of Canada, to be awarded to the successful team as Rugby Football Champions of Canada. The first winners in 1909 was University of Toronto Varsity. Many teams of disparate locations have won the Grey Cup in its 112 year history, including including unlikely places such as Sarnia, Balmy Beach, and Queen’s University Kingston. 

Sunday’s game was the 108th playing of the Game – its consecutive string interrupted by the Great War (1915 – 1919) and in 2020 due to covid.

The Grey Cup today

The CFL is comprised of nine teams, most of which have 100 years of history – the Toronto Argonauts (1873) are the oldest continuing sports franchise in North America, Ottawa and Montreal have changed identities a couple of times in their long histories; the B.C. Lions, the most recent addition, entered the league in 1954! For 50 years dreamers have yearned for additional teams to represent even more Canadian cities: Halifax, Quebec City, London[4].

For most of its modern history, the CFL has struggled to keep its nine teams fiscally viable. If it wasn’t for dedicated community groups and wealthy philanthropic Canadians the league would have long ago ceased to exist. But, historically, there have always been some committed Canadian who has stepped up and kept this uniquely Canadian institution going.

With this long history, is it any wonder I am fond of this truly Canadian sporting event?

But history’s not the only thing that stirs me. It’s the fans. Canadian Football, and the Grey Cup in particular, brings together Canadians more than any other event in Canada, save possibly the World Junior Hockey Tournament. (I eschew that though because, it being an international competition, it brings out the worst in national jingoism, rather than the mysterious coalescing of generosity of spirit that the Grey Cup seems to bring out.) I remember friends for decades hosting Grey Cup parties, the most memorable of which involved dragging the tv outside on the deck to be watched in the harsh November elements just as fans actually at the game would be experiencing – I know, crazy. But this sort of ‘great Canadian drunk’ happened in millions of homes across the country, even though their own team may not have been competing, or even if they hardly knew the game of football. I have attended five Grey Cup games in person in my lifetime, in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa. I have served as a curator at the Ottawa City Archives when Ottawa was hosting the Grey Cup in 2004. I’ve talked with fans in stadiums, on the buses and on the streets and it is striking how convivial these people are. They may be ribald Saskatchewan Roughrider fans but they are also devoted CFL supporters.

What brings this spirit together? It’s not just the Grey Cup Festival. It isn’t even the attachment fans have to the team they support. It is for the love of the game itself, this unique manifestation of Canadiana. Dedicated Canadian Football fans are concerned for the ties that bind people together in a shared experience, in this case, Canadian football. 

The worry is that this venerable institution may be in decline. Go to any CFL game and what do you see – a sea of white faces, and not just old white men, but also white women and white young people. (I got my love of Canadian football from my dad, and I’ve passed that along to my own kids, and they hopefully will pass that attachment along to their kids.) But what of all the faces who are not white? Where are they in the stands and the living rooms of the nation? Canada admits 250,000 immigrants a year, mostly from third world countries, who have no tradition of Canadian football, or of any Canadian cultural events. Our Prime Minister may salute this post-national Canadian condition, but I count this as a significant loss of identity. We need to attract new Canadians to Canadian traditions, and not celebrate their cultural diversity, segregated in the suburbs of Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.

Winnipeg is sometimes called the Filipino capital of Canada, for some reason, with 77,000 residents. I wonder how many of them cheered for the Blue Bombers on Sunday, victors in the 108th Grey Cup Game.

Doug Jordan, reporting to you from Kanata Ontario

© Douglas Jordan & AFS Publishing All rights reserved. No part of these blogs and newsletters may be reproduced without the express permission of the author and/or the publisher, except upon payment of a small royalty, 5¢. 


[1] Trudeau instituted official multiculturalism to counter the desperate and courageous efforts of Quebecois nationalists to preserve Canadian French culture; he wasn’t much interested in English culture, shrug.

[2] (In fact, the Ontario-based semi-pro league playing Canadian football was still called the ORFU – Ontario Rugby Football Union – until the 1950s. The ORFU began inter-league play with the Western Interprovincial Football Union in the 1920s and both persisted even after the Canadian Football League was formed in 1953.)

[3] Yes that family Earl Grey, though it was Albert’s grandfather, the 2nd Earl Grey who gets credit for that bergamot flavoured black tea.

[4] In 1970, as an Operations Research project in my MBA program, I did a PERT Chart for launching a new CFL franchise for the London Lords. I sent it off to the original sponsors but never heard back from them, and as history shows, the London franchise never got off the ground!

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