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Sports & Recreation History

Famous for a Time

Forgotten Giants of Canadian Sport

by (author) Jason Wilson & Richard M. Reid

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
Jul 2023
History, Sports, Post-Confederation (1867-)
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Jul 2023
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Jul 2023
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Celebrating Canadian athletes and sporting history.
The cultural impact of sport on a nation is not slight. Famous for a Time explores a number of important, if not well remembered, Canadian athletes and the sports they played to help explain the nation’s complicated history, sporting and otherwise. It is an exploration that reveals the socio-cultural trends that have shaped Canada since Confederation.
Through the prism of some exceptional athletes, the prevailing attitudes of many Canadians about class, race, masculinity, femininity, and national identity are laid bare. Here, from the sidelines, we learn how these attitudes have changed — or not, as the case may be — over time.
From team sports such as lacrosse, baseball, and cricket to Canada’s cycling craze, track and field, and boxing, each chapter offers insight into an important aspect of the nation’s narrative. The winners and losers of Canada’s games simply mirror the larger questions that have faced Canadian society across three centuries.

About the authors

Jason Wilson

is an award-winning Canadian author and musician. He is a two-time Juno Award nominee and is currently completing his Ph.D. at the University of Guelph. Author of four books, including

Lord Stanley: The Man Behind the Cup

(2006), Wilson has been published on various topics, including Canada and the First World War, hockey, and music.



Jason Wilson's profile page

Richard M. Reid is a professor emeritus at the University of Guelph. He is the author of several books including the C.P. Stacy Award–winning African Canadians in Union Blue. He resides in Guelph, Ontario.

Richard M. Reid's profile page

Excerpt: Famous for a Time: Forgotten Giants of Canadian Sport (by (author) Jason Wilson & Richard M. Reid)

IN CANADA, AS ELSEWHERE, SOME PARTICIPANTS HAVE USED SPORT as a way of expressing and maintaining their cultural identity. At the same time, involvement in sports has afforded new immigrants the opportunity to signal their assimilation into and acceptance of the broader Canadian society. Less constructively, though, sport has sometimes served as a powerful mechanism for exclusion and elitism. The struggle for participation and status within sport is often only a reflection of the larger “real-life” struggle for rights, freedom, and recognition that exists within society.
Such was the case with the game the Iroquois called tewaarathon (“the little brother of war”), the game that became lacrosse. With the emergence of a codified and “improved” version of the Indigenous game in Canada during the 1860s, sport offered a faithful rendering of Canadian society at that time, where ugly prejudices and injustices were laid bare, sometimes deliberately, in the name of nation building.
This was a time when the “Myth of the Vanishing Indian” was being constructed across North America. The myth played on the belief that the Indigenous populations of both Canada and the United States were
slowly dying out as a result of disease and that their various cultures would eventually vanish after they had been assimilated into the dominant Euro- Canadian society. The Gradual Civilization Act (1857), predating the Indian Act (1876) by two decades, was a particularly aggressive policy aimed at “civilizing” the Indigenous peoples of Canada. It was, unsurprisingly, met with resistance from Indigenous communities. While politicians and legislators were considering how best to deal with the perceived “Indian Problem,” Anglo-Saxon Canadians sought to make a somewhat sanitized version of
lacrosse the national sport. All the while, Indigenous people looked on from the touchlines to see their Creator’s Game appropriated to satisfy a nascent and manufactured national narrative.
On August 29, 1844, the first recorded lacrosse game involving Indigenous and non-Indigenous players was played in Montreal. A group of Anglo-Canadians from the Montreal Olympic Athletic Club (MOAC) had for years watched nearby Kahnawake teams play and decided to take up the sport. Having organized a lacrosse team in their club, they challenged the Indigenous players to a match. Despite being allowed two extra players, the MOAC team was badly beaten. However, it was not deterred.3 By the middle of the century, lacrosse was rapidly growing in popularity across Canada. It was the start of the cultural appropriation of an Indigenous game that would be used by anglophone Canadians to help define a distinct cultural identity for the nation and, with bitter irony, exclude Indigenous participation at the elite levels of the game.
The centrality of lacrosse in the nation’s sporting minds was ephemeral. As mentioned earlier, by the end of the First World War, the game, although still popular among specific groups, ceased to be the nation’s dominant sport. And by the time Canada was headed into the Great Depression, lacrosse’s star had long faded. In 1929, for instance, amateur sports enthusiast and journalist Henry H. Roxborough wrote an article for Maclean’s Magazine titled, “Can Lacrosse Come Back?” It was, in fact, a requiem for the sport. Roxborough claimed that in 1900, lacrosse was “so deeply enshrined in the heart of sporting Canada that its permanency and supremacy seemed absolutely assured.” Just two decades later, however, lacrosse had been left behind, replaced by hockey as the nation’s more “permanent” and “supreme” sport. There were simply fewer lacrosse teams and fewer players. Lacrosse registration in Ontario alone had fallen by two-thirds. It was much the same on the West Coast, in cities such as Vancouver.5 Although the sport would make some gains with the introduction of box lacrosse and the expansion of university field lacrosse, professional teams had collapsed and their players, no longer amateurs, had little choice but to retire.
The ways in which Indigenous games have been perceived, described, explained, and — in the case of lacrosse — appropriated offer an example of Mary Louise Pratt’s concept of the “contact zone.” Pratt defines this as the public places where “cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonization, slavery, or their aftermaths as they live out in many parts of the world today.”
As the evolution of lacrosse shows, asymmetrical power relationships dominate but do not deny all power to the marginalized group. Within constrained choices and limited options, Indigenous people used lacrosse for what they saw as their own advantage and agency. A century and a half after its appropriation by Montreal sportsmen, lacrosse would become a tool for Indigenous empowerment and nationalism.
Lacrosse provides an excellent example of the role that sport plays in creating, defining, and reshaping cultural, individual, and even national identity. Appropriated from the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and given a French-Canadian name, lacrosse became a major factor in creating a national identity for the new Dominion of Canada.7 Because these identities were shaped and constantly updated by cumulative historical, cultural, and personal factors changing across time, they remain in a state of flux. As such, one hundred years after it was called Canada’s national game, the Creator’s Game was reduced to a minor sport.
Before European contact with North America, Indigenous men played a range of different stickball games. These varied in forms and rituals, for there were few fixed rules, but all of them involved the use of a racquet of some sort to pick up a ball and throw, carry, or pass it. Given the players’ sticks and balls, and the goals used in play, the ethnomusicologist Thomas Vennum — who also wrote on Indigenous culture writ large — identified three quite different versions played in three regions of eastern North America: the northeast, the Great Lakes, and the southeast.
The stick used in the northeastern game among the Haudenosaunee along the St. Lawrence River became the model for all lacrosse sticks used today: a hickory shaft, one end curved back on itself; a thong fastened from the end of the crook to partway down the hickory shaft; and the resulting triangle filled in with rawhide webbing that could take up half the stick. However, with the divergence in form from place to place, the terms of play, size of the field, number of players, and length of game were all up for negotiation before the start. Perhaps one of the only cardinal rules that governed almost all versions of the game was that the ball was never to be touched by the hand.
The game demanded a lot from its participants, including speed, endurance, dexterity, and a tremendous tolerance for pain. It should be noted that while these stickball contests had strong recreational and athletic components, they were seldom merely games. Indeed, for the Indigenous people who played or watched them, these contests were a communal act, involving a whole range of cultural complexities, including spiritualism, warfare, the demonstration of physical prowess, prestige, gambling, dreaming, mourning, celebration, curing, and shamanism.
Several different names were conferred on the game by the many nations who played it. The Anishinaabe (Algonquin), for example, referred to it as baggataway; the Wendat as kahwendae; and the Kahnawake (Mohawk) as tewaarathon. For their part, the Haudenosaunee referred to it as the “Creator’s Game,” as it was played for the entertainment of the Creator.
And spirituality was indeed a key feature of the contests. Spiritual leaders, for instance, were the initiators and mediators of most games. Before playing, warriors might fast, purge, and exercise to make their mind, body, and spirit acceptable to the Creator. During the political disruption and social change within Indigenous communities between 1700 and 1800, however, the connection of tewaarathon to the Creator waned as some Kahnawake individuals converted to Christianity.10 Here, for the first time, we see non-Indigenous elements being introduced and, over time, altering the very meaning of the game. Soon, members of Montreal’s anglophone elite would repackage and repurpose the Indigenous sport.

Editorial Reviews

Wilson and Reid make clear that fame is fickle, and hero-making is a messy business. If it feels like the older stories do more of the heavy lifting in our nation-building, it is probably also good to remember that hero-making continues…and so does the shaping of our national image.

CBC Sports