As Canadian Football League owners, coaches, players, officials and fans alike all get ramped up for the start of the much-anticipated 2021 season, there is perhaps one section of the Canadian community that could be excused from being excited about it. And that is Indigenous peoples.
The CFL has been around for more than 60 years, but the reality is that in that time, it has paid scant attention to First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples.
One of the leading experts on race and sport in Canada is Associate Professor John Valentine of MacEwan University in Alberta.
“I think as an underprivileged and discriminated against part of the population, there are unfortunately few Indigenous athletes in most sports,” Valentine said. “You’re starting to see more in hockey now. Hockey is important in Canada, and it has always been important to Indigenous peoples going back a hundred years.”
“If you look at Olympic teams and national calibre athletes, Indigenous athletes are always underrepresented and that’s certainly the case in football in Canada as well.”
Valentine says that’s due to Indigenous peoples having less access to resources. Whether it’s economic resources, time or transportation, they all play a role in limiting opportunities.
“It’s not exceedingly expensive to play football, but it requires some resources,” he said. “It’s cheaper than it is to play hockey in Canada, but you do need resources such as transportation and access to teams, and in some cases, it’s hard for Indigenous communities to access team programs.”
In the last 30 years or so, there have been some Indigenous players from Canada who have signed with CFL teams. Not all of them got game time, but at the very least they were on rosters.
- John Williams Sr DB Edmonton, Toronto, Hamilton, Calgary [1967-1975]
- Jed Roberts (Sioux) LB/DE Edmonton [1990-2002]
- John Williams Jr (Muscogee Freedmen) RB Toronto, Edmonton, BC, Hamilton [2002-2009]
- Williams Sr and Jr are thought to be the only father and son to win Grey Cups (Sr/Hamilton 1972, Jr/Toronto 2004)Nautyn McKay-Loescher (Objibwa/Cree) DL BC, Hamilton [2004-2009]
- Neal Hughes (Metis) RB Saskatchewan [2004-2014]JR LaRose (Cree/One Arrow First Nation) DB Edmonton, BC [2005-2014]
- Tchissakid (T-Dre) Player (Anishinaabe from Sagkeeng First Nation) OL BC, Winnipeg, Saskatchewan [2014-2016]Jacob Firlotte (Sts’ailes from Chehalis First Nation) DB Winnipeg 
- Troy Westwood (not Indigenous but is associated with the Sagkeeng First Nation) K Winnipeg [1991-2007, 2009]
There have also been a number of Indigenous players from the US who have played in the CFL.
- Woody Strode (Creek and Cherokee) Calgary [1948-1949]
- Jack Jacobs (Creek) QB Winnipeg [1950-1954]
- Eagle Day (Cherokee) QB Wpg, Calgary, Toronto [1956-1967]
- Up until 1969, the top 10 career passers were Eagle Day in 9th and Jack Jacobs in 10th
- Billy Joe Booth (Part Cherokee) DE Ottawa [1962-1970]
- Jay Roberts (Sioux) TE Ottawa [1964-1970]
- Roberts worked with the Metis Association of Ontario.
- Dave Lewis (Chukchansis) QB/RB Montreal [1967-1968, 1975]
- Lewis went to the NFL in 1969, but never really got a chance to play QB. He was the Montreal MVP in 1968
Valentine cites what the Montreal Alouettes have done this offseason in signing French Canadian players as a shining example of what teams across the CFL could do to foster more Indigenous players.
He says he thinks it’s a great way to not only introduce the game to regions that may not necessarily be football strongholds, but also to create a greater sense of inclusion within Indigenous communities in the CFL family through their own players.
“Some of the CFL teams have started outreach programs,” he continued. “Winnipeg and Saskatchewan have programs and also some of the players are getting involved.
“Charleston Hughes in Saskatchewan [now of the Toronto Argonauts] has been in the media lately saying he’s trying to encourage Indigenous youth to get involved in junior programs. He actually is on the record as saying he wants to start a junior football team in Canada just for Indigenous youth.”
“John Williams, who used to play for Hamilton, for the last five or six years has been trying to reach out to Indigenous youth to introduce them to football.”
“JR LaRose was great for that. Part of his identity was definitely his Indigenous background. He was Aboriginal, he was going to profess that and talk about it. So, then you’d start to see a potential role model for young Indigenous youth who might want to pursue this, but we haven’t had a whole lot of that in Canadian football until say the last ten years.”
Valentine says Indigenous youth tend to look at other sports before football and he points to hockey as a prime example. He says lacrosse is another sport that traditionally attracts Indigenous players.
“I think if the CFL has hitched its wagon to the promotion of Canadian players, then in the same way, you could suggest there should be an emphasis on trying to create Canadian Indigenous players as well.”
“The University of Calgary Dinos, which is a pretty strong football program, is starting to do more outreach. They’re going to smaller centres in Alberta like Lethbridge to do workshops to show fundamental skills, introduce young kids to football and try and get them switched on to physical activity, as well as introduce them to the game of football and maybe create some football players for the future.”
“You could do the same thing by going to reserves. You could take some of the Indigenous players who have played for Edmonton, or Calgary or BC or wherever and take them out into the community. You’re turning on youngsters to the Canadian game and hopefully, you’re turning on Indigenous youngsters to Canadian football.”
Valentine says if the CFL were to adopt this kind of program, it might create players who could become stars of the future. And he says those players might then act as role models for future generations.
“That to me is a no-brainer,” he concluded.
Dr. Valentine has published in the areas of globalization, race and sport in Canada, the history of Canadian football and youth sport.