Canadian sport is indebted to Aboriginal culture for the toboggan, snowshoe, lacrosse stick and canoe.
Canadian sport is indebted to Aboriginal culture for the toboggan, snowshoe, lacrosse stick and canoe. The coureurs de bois and the voyageurs, through their close contact with the First Peoples, helped introduce into European settlements the activities that resulted from the use of these pieces of equipment. Many Aboriginal games had utilitarian purposes related to survival (eg, wrestling, jousting, archery, spear throwing, and foot and canoe racing), while activities such as dancing and baggattaway (see Lacrosse) had religious significance. The First Peoples also developed a great variety of games, such as awl games, ring and pole, snow snake, cat's cradle, dice and birchbark cards, partly for the sheer love of play and sometimes for the purpose of gambling. The games of the Inuit were similarly related to preparing youth for co-operative existence in a harsh environment where one also needed to know one's tolerance limits. Blanket toss, tug-of-war, dogsled races, drum dances, spear throwing and ball games, as well as self-testing games such as arm-pull, hand-wrestling and finger-pull, helped to fulfil this purpose. Gambling was common and even useful, as it served to redistribute surplus goods.
In the pioneer settlements of the Europeans, play was relatively unimportant compared with the serious work of survival, yet social and recreational activities were necessary and did occur. From France, the French Canadian inherited his love of social gatherings, and North America's first social club, the Ordre de Bon Temps, was formed at Port-Royal. Social gatherings in pioneer societies, in the form of "bees" (husking, quilting and barn raising), also had a utilitarian basis, as participants could benefit from co-operative labours. Such gatherings usually offered music and dancing, wrestling and horse racing, and in French Canada provided opportunity for the "strong man" tradition to develop, exemplified later in Louis Cyr. Where pioneer settlements consolidated into rural communities, a more organized form of recreation developed, largely from British migration in the 19th century. The formation of agricultural societies within these communities provided the administrative structure for regular competitions in plowing and horse racing. Rural regattas followed in which settlers plied their skills against voyageur and Aboriginal since, even to the farmer, the canoe often provided the swiftest and easiest method of transportation.
The Scots played a major role in transporting British sporting traditions to North America. Golf was played by some of General Wolfe's Scottish officers, though it did not become an established sport before Confederation. Curling, by contrast, after its introduction under similar circumstances, thrived in Canada; the first sporting club, founded in 1807, was the Montreal Curling Club. In 1865 curling became one of the select group of sports to enter international competition. Golf's initial failure and curling's success serve to demonstrate the relationship between sport and society. In the early period, the large tracts of land required to maintain a small number of golfers were an unaffordable luxury, whereas in the Canadian winter ice was plentiful and accessible to all. Also, scattered throughout the provinces after 1760 were the British military garrisons whose soldiers perpetuated 2 traditional loves, cricket and equestrian sports.
Games introduced by the Scottish or English soon found adherents among the mixture of cultures developing in the colony. In addition, sports that owed little traditional allegiance to a particular ethnic origin were emerging and growing in popularity. These ranged from simple and useful sports such as tobogganing, sleighing, ice skating and sailing, through individual sports promoted for their general health values (gymnastics, tack and field, and swimming), to such highly complex sports as rowing, where the skill of the rowers was combined with the science of the boat builders.
In 1867 a team from Saint John, known as the Paris Crew, won the world rowing championship at the Paris Exposition in France. In the early 19th century, the majority of the active sportsmen were gentlemen players from the merchant or upper strata of society and officers of the garrison. Not only did these officers re-establish in their new environment the sporting traditions of their homeland, but they were also eager to adopt and sponsor new activities. Their love of horse racing, along with their leisured existence, gave impetus to such allied sports as hunting, trotting and steeplechasing. They also added colour to the skating rink, the toboggan slide, the sleigh ride and the ballroom. Their all-encompassing interest and enthusiasm, allied with their managerial expertise, resulted in a broad spectrum of sport being established within the communities.
In theory, skating, snowshoeing, cricket, football and similar activities were available for the working class; however, this group lacked time and organizational experience. Those for whom Sunday provided the only leisure time were deterred from sporting activities on that day by religious groups, and by the law after the Lord's Day Act was passed in 1845 in the Province of Canada.
It was not until early closing hours for shop and factory became more widespread in the mid-1860s that working class participation in sport became possible. In this context, the advent of lacrosse and baseball was timely, although even these sports tended to exclude members of the lower class, or "rowdies" as they were called, from organized teams. Where an activity was dependent upon organization, it still remained largely the prerogative of the affluent members of society.
Most pioneer women were far too busy to enjoy much leisure, but even when the opportunity presented itself, the conventions of the time prevented their active participation in most of the outdoor recreational activities followed by men. In the cities, their passive involvement was always encouraged through attendance at horse races, regattas, cricket matches and other spectator sports. It was permissible for them to be passengers in carrioles, iceboats and yachts; the more fortunate and independent were allowed to ride horses, skate or play croquet. The 1850s witnessed a change in attitude towards women engaging in sport that was also aided by changes in sporting attire. Female participation in fox hunting, the Ladies' Prince of Wales Snowshoe Club (1861), the Montreal Ladies Archery Club (1858), rowing regattas, figure skating championships and foot races at social picnics was evidence of growing emancipation.
Probably the greatest role sporting competition played prior to 1867 was as social gathering and mixing ground. City and country dwellers could meet at the agricultural-social events; voyageurs could compete with Aboriginals and settlers at canoe regattas; people of the First Nations could engage townsfolk in lacrosse. Race meetings were very popular and attracted thousands of spectators in the large urban centres. Horse racing provided a social as well as sporting environment for the townsfolk and was the setting for the greatest social mingling of 19th-century society. The upper classes tended to resist this mingling, however, and made unsuccessful efforts to preserve horse races for themselves by erecting fences around the courses and charging admission. This exclusion policy may also be seen in the appearance of events for "gentlemen amateurs" in regattas and horse races, ensuring that the practised fisherman rower or the skilled farmhand could not compete with the social elite.
The greatest impact upon sports came from advances in technology. The steamboat, railway locomotive and steam-powered printing press made it possible for sport to be brought before the public. Steamboats carried sporting teams and spectators on excursions that had previously been highly impractical by stagecoach. They even followed the boats and yachts during regattas. The rapid expansion of railways made the one-day excursion for match play feasible (see Railway History). More widely represented team meetings and bonspiels could be arranged, provincial associations formed and rules of play made more uniform. The larger newspapers, made possible by steam-powered printing presses, carried greater sports coverage, and the invention of the telegraph brought quicker reporting of results.
Sport, by Confederation, 1867, was approaching a new era. Old activities such as cricket, rowing and horse racing continued to be important, while the emergence of new ones, such as lacrosse and baseball, were the mark of a country with expanding sporting interests. Urbanization advanced liberal attitudes among civic leaders towards the population's need for healthy diversion and exercise. As these 2 forces gathered strength and allied with advancing technology, increased organization of sporting activities was the natural result. Of even more importance was an emerging Canadian identity in sport. Sport played an integral part in the development of national feeling, at least among English-speaking Canadians. This trend is clearly seen in the phenomenal growth of lacrosse from 6 to 80 clubs during the summer of 1867, as George Beers urged - unsuccessfully, despite popular support - that this sport be proclaimed Canada's national game. The unifying force of sport was also clearly shown when all of Canada basked in the glory achieved by the Saint John crew in Paris.
Sport from 1867 to 1900
On 26 Sept 1867, at a convention in Kingston, Ont, the National Lacrosse Association was formed - the first of many such sports organizations to be established in Canada before the turn of the century. During the last 3 decades of the 19th century, sport in Canada matured and established the foundations that would carry it through much of the 20th century. It came under the influence of men who sought to rationalize and codify their games as they brought form and order to their sporting pursuits. Moreover, sport became a means for Canadians to express their feelings of pride in their new nation, aggressively searching for international competition and finding considerable success on the playing fields of the world.
This was a time when sport was intensely creative and exciting. Canadians were at the forefront of the development and popularization of 3 sports: lacrosse, hockey and basketball. In 1874 in football, Canadians introduced to their American neighbours the oval ball and the rules of rugby. Lacrosse was so popular in the 1880s that the myth grew that it had been declared, by Act of Parliament, to be the national game. By the 1880s the game had been introduced to England and was spreading to western Canada.
Eventually baseball would challenge lacrosse for public support and interest as a summer sport. The Canadian Baseball Association was formed in 1876 and the first baseball leagues shortly thereafter. Much of baseball's early success occurred in southwestern Ontario, where the proximity of the US was enhanced by railway links.
Football, too, had a rapid evolution. The year 1874 marked the beginning of a series of annual matches between McGill and Harvard universities. As a result, the Americans shifted away from association football, called soccer today in North America, and adopted the oval ball and scrum of rugby. The links of the game to the universities and colleges of both countries, well established during this time, contributed to its longstanding success. In 1884 the first national championship for this largely Ontario- and Québec-based sport was held.
By the turn of the century, through numerous rule changes, play had evolved away from rugger to the unique game of Canadian football. Both rugby and lacrosse contributed to hockey's evolution from an ill-defined version of British stick and ball games. Many of its practices, including the face-off, its regulations concerning offsides, and the use of goals to score points owe a debt to one or other of the former games.
Montréal was the cradle for most of these dynamic developments of the late 19th century in Canada. The Montreal Amateur Athletic Association (established 1881) was the first club of its kind, and acted as an umbrella for many sports clubs in that city. It was a social as well as a sports centre, with a large building providing reading and meeting rooms, a gymnasium and, eventually, a swimming pool. This club was the driving force behind the formation of the Amateur Athletic Association of Canada, the first attempt to unify and regulate all sport in the country.
It is clear that the thrust behind the organization of sports in Canada's cities at this time came from members of the professional and business classes, who had the contacts, organizational skills and time to devote to this development. Faith in a scientific approach to all matters in life helped shape their attitudes to sport. One result of this approach, besides the development of sports organizations, was a fervent belief in amateurism and amateur codes.
At the beginning of the 19th century, sport was largely controlled by the upper classes, and restrictive codes were established to segregate undesirables; the earliest forms were often racially based, restricting Aboriginals and Blacks from competing with Whites. Eventually, as the working classes gained more free time, there arose the need to restrict them too. Having the time to develop strength and skills became a determinant, but eventually it was money, which released one from having to find other means of livelihood, that separated the amateurs from the professionals. The Amateur Athletic Union of Canada, in 1895, defined an amateur as being "one who has never pursued or assisted in the practice of manly exercise as a means of obtaining a livelihood."
There was more than social exclusivity behind the development of amateur codes. The desire for order moved Canadian sportsmen of the period to end a system of sporadic challenge matches which had open gambling and paid, imported athletes. Professionals were highly suspect and held in very low regard.
The man who contributed most to changing these attitudes was Toronto's great Ned Hanlan, the world's professional sculling champion 1880-84. Thousands travelled great distances on special excursions arranged by railway promoters to watch him row against the world's best. He became the focus of a growing national spirit and helped to create a broad public acceptance, indeed adulation, for those who possessed great athletic skills. Deriving commercial benefit from his talent was simple affirmation of his ability.
Those who continued in the amateur tradition included Louis Rubenstein and George Orton. Rubenstein won the unofficial world championship in figure skating in 1890 and eventually became a pillar in the development of that sport, and in others like cycling. Orton became the first Canadian champion in the modern Olympic Games, the great forum for the amateur athletic ideal. Canada sent no representative to the first Olympics, held in Greece in 1896, but Orton won the 1500 m steeplechase event as a member of the US team at the second Olympics in 1900.
As Canada entered the 20th century, it had regionally and nationally based structures for the governing of sports that provided the means of athletic competition. The amateur ethic was strong and would remain the basis for much athletic participation, but the door was open for professional sports where public interest made it commercially viable. Moreover, Canadians had found success and pride in challenging athletes from other parts of the world. It is little wonder that historians have regarded the years from Confederation to the turn of the 20th century as the golden age of sport in Canada.
Sport from 1900 to the Present
The twin processes of urbanization and industrialization, which had helped sow the seeds of modern sport in the 19th century, continued into the 20th century with even greater impact. One result was the full maturing of professional sports into great commercial spectator attractions. A second development, as the world was made smaller by air travel, was the growth of competitive opportunities for Canadians against athletes from around the world. As success in international events became of increasing importance, it came to be seen as part of the "national interest" to support athletes with government assistance.
By the turn of the century, hockey's roots were firmly planted in Canada and it was rapidly replacing lacrosse as the "national game." By 1908 it epitomized the divergent trends of sports towards amateurism and professionalism. The Stanley Cup became emblematic of the professional championship and the Allan Cup and Memorial Cup of the amateur championships. After WWII, first through Foster Hewitt's radio broadcasts and later through television, professional hockey gained an almost mesmerized national audience. At the same time, small communities across the country were linked through the Allan Cup, the symbol of the national senior amateur title. Until 1952 Canada could count on its amateur champions to win the world title, but that changed after 1952 with the emergence of the Soviet Union as a hockey power.
The belief that hockey's professionals were the world's best was shattered through various competitions in the 1970s (see Canada-Soviet Hockey Series). Nevertheless, professional hockey continued to be Canada's most popular sport and the sport most associated with the national identity. Canada's hockey prowess has continued to decline, but nonetheless Canadians have not lost their passion for the sport. Even the puzzling economics of the professional sport, in which owners seemed to benefit more from playing to empty stands in Carolina than to full arenas in Edmonton and Calgary, seems unable to diminish Canadians' love for the game.
Lacrosse, in contrast, had dropped from being by far the most popular sport of the first decade, in number of spectators and press attention, into a state of serious decline by the 1920s. The press of the day was critical of the recurring violence in lacrosse matches. The game failed to develop a system of minor leagues that could produce future talent. Furthermore, it was a summer sport and the arrival of the automobile enabled people to escape the hot cities to other forms of recreation. Finally the media lost interest in lacrosse, turning their attention to baseball, with its "big league" glamour.
Despite baseball's popularity as a summer sport, however, it took nearly 70 years before a major league franchise was established in the country, although Montréal and Toronto had teams in the "Triple A" International League. There were several variations of the game played throughout the country.
As well as hardball, softball in fast-pitch and slow-pitch versions have been popular. The Toronto Tip Tops claimed the world softball championship in 1949 and the Richmond Hill Dynes repeated this feat in 1972. With the formation of the Montreal Expos in 1969 and the Toronto Blue Jays in 1977, 2 Canadian cities had franchises in the American-based professional major leagues of baseball. The Blue Jays made major league history by winning the World Series, emblematic of professional baseball supremacy, in 1993. They were the first non-US resident team to achieve this. They repeated their championship in 1994.
Football was another sport that experienced healthy growth in the 20th century, evolving from a game with a large amateur base into one that was played by professionals in a highly commercialized milieu. Until the 1920s the game was played and watched by a small but relatively well-educated and wealthy group of Canadians. It was based mainly in the country's large eastern universities and it used these roots to ensure its long-term survival. In the 1920s western teams began to use American players, and in 1936 the Canadian Rugby Union passed its first "residency" rule to curb such practices.
Still, the pattern had been set so that, by the late 1960s, most of the key playing and coaching positions were held by Americans, with Canadians playing supporting roles. (Since the retirement of Russ Jackson no Canadian has played quarterback regularly for a CFL team.)
Nevertheless, Canadian football has retained its unique flavour and has enjoyed the status, in its own season, of a major commercial endeavour capable of drawing widespread public interest. One of the reasons for this is the East versus West rivalry that the game has generated. This began in 1921, when the Edmonton Eskimos first provided a western challenge for the Grey Cup. In 1935 Winnipeg won the national championship, a first for a western team. In 1948, the antics of Calgary fans in Toronto started the idea for a full-blown festival associated with the Grey Cup game - perhaps the closest thing to a national sports celebration Canada has.
While certain team sports enjoyed growing popularity and professionalization, the sector of Canadian sport that is broadly regarded as amateur survived and grew slowly, first under the broad umbrella of the Olympic movement and finally with government support. Canada has entered an official team at the Olympic Games since 1908 (except for the boycott of the 1980 Moscow games). Hamilton, Ont, was the host for the first British Empire Games (later the Commonwealth Games) in 1930 and the Pan-American Games were started in 1951. All three multi-sport festivals provide a highly visible international stage on which amateur athletes can focus their training programs and aspirations for success.
In the 1920s Canada produced some of the world's finest amateur boxers, oarsmen and track and field competitors. However, by 1936, when Canada's gold medal success at the Olympics was limited to Frank Amyot's victory in canoeing, it was apparent that the world was beginning to leave Canadians behind, and a long period of feelings of national failure in athletics set in. Since the arrival of a strong Soviet team at the 1952 Olympic Games, the world of international sport had become increasingly the focus of political and national rivalries. Athletes had come to be seen as national spear carriers, increasingly under pressure to perform well in order to defend their country's honour. These pressures weighed heavily on nations such as Canada, which in 1960 returned from the Rome Olympics with but one silver medal.
The international Paralympic movement gained strength in the 1960s in an attempt to promote inclusively in competitive sport, and Canadian athletes were active competitors early on. During the first Paralympic Games in Rome in 1960, 400 athletes with spinal cord injuries from 21 countries competed, Canadians among them. The International Paralympic Committee was founded in 1989, and Canadian Robert Steadward, an expert in the field of disabled sport, was elected president. Canadians have excelled in Paralympic sport; the Canadian team won more than 30 medals at the 2006 games.
As in other nations that come to consider sports to be wrapped up in the "national interest," Canadian sport sought the aid of the federal government. In 1961 the Fitness and Amateur Sport Act was passed. It was intended to provide $5 million annually to amateur sport and fitness-related activities. Growth was slow, however, and it was only after the stimulation provided by the findings of the Task Force on Sport for Canadians in 1969 that the federal government took a more aggressive approach to funding amateur sport.
By the 1980s, the annual budget of the Fitness and Amateur Sport Program exceeded $50 million. One result of this government support was the growing bureaucratization of sport. Most of the affairs of national and regional sports organizations became the responsibility of paid administrators instead of long-time volunteers. However, another result has been increasing international success.
Since 1980 Canadians have won world championships or held world records in alpine skiing, speed skating, figure skating, yachting, track and field, equestrianism, swimming, trap shooting, boxing, wrestling and modern pentathlon. In Sarajevo in 1984, Canada produced its most successful winter Olympian to date in speedskater Gaëtan Boucher, who won three medals: two gold and one bronze. With his silver medal win at the 1980 Olympics, Boucher held the record for the most Olympic medals won by a Canadian athlete. He was surpassed by fellow speed skaters Marc Marc Gagnon in 2002 and Cindy Klassen in 2006, both of whom won five Olympic medals.
Boucher's triumphs were a sign of great things to come for Canadian winter sports. Although no Canadian won gold medals at the Winter Olympics in Calgary in 1988, the financial endowments and the facility legacy from those Olympics continue to produce benefits for Canadian athletes to this day. An endowment of $65 million was turned over to the Canadian Olympic Association, which has used it to gain independence from government support and to develop a variety of athlete support programs. The balance of the financial and facility legacy is managed by the Calgary Olympic Development Association (CODA). The value of the endowment now exceeds $150 million. On the sports performance side, Canadian athletic successes in Nagano in 1998 were a clear indication that the legacy of 1988 was bearing fruit. Canada's Olympic athletes won 15 medals, including 6 gold, surpassing the results of the US for the first time. During the 1990s, Boucher's double gold medal feat was duplicated by Myriam Bédard, the winner of 2 gold medals in Lillehammer (1994) in the women's biathlon.
In sharp contrast to the 1976 Montréal games in which Canadians won 11 medals, none of them gold, in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics Canadians won 44 medals, including 10 gold. The 1984 triumph included 2 gold medals and Olympic records in swimming by Alex Baumann; the first woman in history to win an Olympic shooting gold medal (Linda Thom); the first Canadian woman swimmer to win a gold medal (Anne Ottenbrite); and the first Canadian diver to take an Olympic gold (Sylvie Bernier). Although the medal count was somewhat inflated by the boycott of Soviet bloc nations, Canada still placed a surprising fourth among the 140 nations that did attend.
While many remember the Olympic Games in Seoul (1988) for the disqualification of sprinter Ben Johnson for failing a performance-enhancing drug usage test, Canada's Olympic athletes did provide many pride-filled moments. Carolyn Waldo won 2 gold medals in synchronized swimming, including one in the duet event with teammate Michelle Cameron, and Lennox Lewis won the heavyweight boxing title. In 1992, Canadians again found gold on the track (Mark McKoy), in the pool (Mark Tewksbury and Sylvie Frechette) and, most notably, on the rowing course, with gold medals in both the men's and women's 8s events, women's 4s, and with the pair of Kathleen Heddle and Marnie McBean. McBean and Heddle made history by winning this event again in 1996. However, on the track, Donovan Bailey's win in the 100 m race to claim the title of world's fastest man, in world record time, was a first since Percty Williams' victory in 1928. Bailey was also on the men's 4 x 100 m relay team that struck gold in an event normally won by American athletes.
Canadian athletes seemed to hit their stride at Salt Lake City's Winter Olympics in 2002, placing fourth in the medal standings with a total of 17 medals, our highest medal count to that time. They included 6 gold, 3 silver and 8 bronze. Jaimie Salé and David Pelletier shared gold medals with Russian skaters Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze after a judging scandal. The speed skaters' 8 medals were the biggest contribution to the total count. Speed skater Clara Hughes became the first Canadian to win at both Summer and Winter Olympics, having won 2 bronze medals for cycling in 1996. Canada's crowning achievement was hockey gold, taken by both the women's and men's teams and assisted by Edmonton icemaker Trent Evans, who placed a loonie at centre ice for luck.
That luck held in 2006 at Torino, where Canada placed third in the medal count, the most successful finish to that date. Canada won 24 medals - 7 gold, 10 silver, and 7 bronze. The women bested the men in the medal count. Jennifer Heil (moguls), Chandra Crawford (cross-country sprint), Cindy Klassen and Clara Hughes (speed skating) all won gold, with Klassen winning a total of 5 medals. Duff Gibson (skeleton) took gold and Bradley Gushue led the men's curling team victory. And Canada was golden in women's hockey, the team led by Cassie Campbell.
Perhaps it is because Canada is a winter country, but Canadian athletes have not fared as well at recent Summer Olympic Games. The Canadian Olympic Team returned from Sydney in 2000 with 14 medals. In 2004 at Athens Canadian athletes' performance was consistent with previous years, and athletes, coaches and some of the Canadian public raised concerns that public and private funding for athletes was inadequate in comparison with other countries. Poor medal performances in 2000 prompted controversial changes in Canadian Olympic Committee policy, which resulted in Canada sending fewer athletes to subsequent Games. The theory was that financial resources should be focused on those athletes with the best chance at a medal. As a result, only 200 athletes from Canada competed in Athens, the lowest since the 1980 boycott. They won a total of 12 medals.
Canadians achieved slightly greater success at the 2008 Games in Beijing, winning 18 medals. The surprise winners were from the equestrian team, where longtime Olympian Ian Millar and his team of Eric Lamaze, Mac Cone and Jill Henselwood won silver, Canada's first medal in the sport since 1976. Later, Lamaze won the country's first individual equestrian medal (gold) and the second individual show jumping medal in Olympic history.
Crisis of Inactivity
While elite sport garners medals and some international attention in the sports arena, sport as a general pastime has declined. Under the urgings of the government-funded organization, ParticipACTION, established in 1971, more and more Canadians pursued fitness through sports activities during the 1970s and 80s. ParticipACTION was a pioneer program in social marketing and became internationally recognized for its success in promoting physical activity. In the late 1990s core funding declined and the program had to be suspended in 2001. It was resurrected in 2007.
Throughout the 1990s, Canadians' participation in sports activities declined and obesity rates increased to the point where medical researchers declared a "crisis of inactivity." Statistics for youth are the most profound. Participation in sports among Canadian youth aged 15-18 declined from 77% to 59% between 1992 and 2005, according to Statistics Canada. Only 13% of Canadians aged 5 to 19 meet the recommended guidelines in Canada's Physical Activity Guides for Children and Youth. Reasons for the decline in sports participation are reported as more time spent watching television, increased leisure time spent using a computer, a decline in the amount of physical education offered in schools, fewer opportunities for children to walk to school or activities, and generally less leisure time available to adults due to demanding careers.
T. Frayne and P. Gzowski, Great Canadian Sport Stories (1965)
B. Schrodt, G. Redmond and R. Baka, Sport Canadiana (1980)
Don Morrow, Sport in Canada: A History (2010)
D. Fisher and S.F. Wise, Canada's Sporting Heroes (1974)