Paula Simons: Time to hear Tanya Tagaq’s Eskimos challenge
This week, the award-winning, internationally acclaimed singer Tanya Tagaq took to Twitter to answer a viral challenge to offer up an unpopular opinion.
While other people were confessing that they didn’t really like Tim Hortons doughnuts or that they really don’t get the Gilmore Girls, Tagaq went with something a little more provocative — and a little more resonant.
“What a glorious message would be sen(t) to our country if @EdmontonEsks changed their name. It would set a new precedent of respect,” Tagaq wrote.
It was a fascinating choice of phrase.
Tagaq wasn’t demanding that Edmonton change the name of its beloved football team. Rather than simply trying to shame our city, she was calling on us to play a leadership role in Confederation. This was our chance, her tweet suggested, to amend the name, not as lip service to “political correctness,” but as a symbolic national act of reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous peoples.
I think that reframing of the debate makes a critical difference to how people hear the argument.
The Edmonton Eskimos name has a rich and proud history in Edmonton — and it’s small wonder that Edmontonians don’t want to feel ashamed of it.
Back in 1892, when the first Edmonton Eskimos rugby football team took the field, no one thought of the name as a racist slur. When sports promoter William Deacon White founded the Edmonton Eskimos baseball team in 1909, and the Edmonton Eskimos football team in 1910 and the Edmonton Eskimos hockey team in 1911, the name was chosen for its alliteration, for its nod towards the fact that Edmonton was the most northerly major community in Canada, and for the somewhat Rousseau-esquely romanticized notion of the Inuit as strong and sturdy and indomitable.
It wasn’t a name chosen out of malice, more out of cheerful ignorance. Few people in the 1950s or 1960s found it ironic that Edmontonians cheered lustily for the Eskimos on the field while real-life Inuit tuberculosis patients languished in the segregated Charles Camsell hospital.
But this isn’t 1892. It isn’t 1910. It isn’t 1949, when the modern CFL team was founded.
It’s 2017. And we have a chance to send a new kind of message about cultural respect — and respect for the history we share.
I’m not one of those people who has a lot of time for celebrity endorsements or celebrity Twitter campaigns. I don’t much care what celebrities have to say about vaccinations or pipelines or vaginal steaming. I’m not suggesting we change the name of our oldest professional sports team simply because a pop singer told us to.
And while Tagaq is an Inuk, she doesn’t speak for all Inuit, or all Indigenous people. There are some Inuit who quite like the name Edmonton Eskimos and consider it a compliment.
But with each passing year, the name of our team starts to feel more and more uncomfortable — like a favourite shirt that no longer quite fits. With each passing year, the patronizing moniker starts to feel more and more like a relic of an age that was both more innocent and more thoughtless. There’s only so long we can go on saying, “Well, but it’s not as bad as Redskins.”
Eskimo is a name that never properly belonged to Edmonton at all, a borrowed, appropriated name that disrespects not just the Inuit people, but also the other First Nations who actually did call this territory home.
We shouldn’t change our team’s name grudgingly or grumpily, because we’ve been shamed or bullied into it. We should, instead, consider taking up Tagaq’s challenge. We should do it because this is a moment for us to lead an important national conversation about how we confront our colonial past.
Right now, our team has a perfect 7-0 record. We’re first in the Western Division. The team is already exulting in its CFL leadership role. What better moment for us to lead on a different field of play?
I know. We’d miss the name and its history. And no other name feels quite the same. The Edmonton Elk? Well, it has the alliteration, but lacks the three-syllable balance of Edmonton Eskimos. The Edmonton Eagles? A bit too American, perhaps. The Edmonton Grizzlies? No alliteration. The Edmonton Empire? Closer, perhaps, if a bit grim.
The clock is ticking. Time for us to kick a name that was never ours. Time to call a new play.
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