Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Because Canada was a British colony, Canada's football had its roots in the United Kingdom. It was the version in vogue at the British public school of Rugby that arrived in Canada through immigration, the civil service, and military garrisons.

By the 1860s the game was being played in Montreal, where a city group, the Garrison, and McGill University formed teams. In 1874 McGill took its hybrid form of the Rugby game to Harvard University and introduced it to the United States. Harvard in turn promoted it to neighboring academic institutions. Changes in the traditional British game were much slower in Canada than in the United States. In 1882 the scrum method of putting the ball in play was modified slightly in Canada by "heeling" it back to the quarterback; in the United States it was snapped back, a regulation that was not accepted universally in Canada until 1921.

Even though it was understood that the Canadian game was different from English rugby, that term continued to be used in Canada until the 1950s. Growth of the game was assisted by the formation of governing bodies, regional and national. The Quebec Rugby Football Union (QRFU) was formed in 1882; the Ontario Rugby Football Union (ORFU) in 1883; the Canadian Rugby Union (CRU) in 1892; the Canadian Intercollegiate Rugby Football Union (CIRFU) in 1898; the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union (IRFU) in 1907; and the Western Interprovincial Rugby Football Union (WIRFU) in 1911. The latter was the governing body for unions in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. Dominion championships have been held since 1892. A new trophy, the Grey Cup, named after Governor-General Lord Grey, was introduced in 1909 and symbolized Canadian football supremacy. In 1966 the CRU turned over the trusteeship of the cup to the Canadian Football League (CFL) and changed its name to the Canadian Amateur Football Association (CAFA).

Teams representing cities in the Great Plains have played a major role in the development of Canadian football. In 1921 the Edmonton Eskimos were the first western team to challenge for the Grey Cup; the Winnipeg Blue Bombers won that trophy in 1935, the first western team to do so. They were greatly aided by the nine American players the team had recruited from the so-called Swede belt of the Dakotas and Minnesota. That action caused the CRU to impose a restriction on the number of Americans who could play in the national championship. In 1998 team rosters were thirty-seven players: sixteen imports (typically Americans), eighteen nonimports (typically Canadians), and three quarterbacks (no restrictions).

In 1948 the Calgary Stampeders turned the national championship into a celebration when supporters arrived in Toronto, the site of the game, with western regalia, horses, chuck wagons, "cowboys and Indians," and flapjack breakfasts. The Edmonton Eskimos won consecutive Grey Cups in 1954, 1955, and 1956. In a 1998 poll, Jackie Parker of that era was selected as the top player ever to play in the CFL. The Eskimos later won five consecutive cups from 1978 to 1982. Regina was the host of the Grey Cup game of 1995. It was also the first time that an American team, the Baltimore Stallions, won the Grey Cup when they defeated the Calgary Stampeders 37 to 20. It will probably be the last for some time, since all the American teams disbanded after the season, cutting short the American expansion experiment by the CFL.

Professional football in Canada is under the direction of the CFL and had eight teams in 1998: Montreal Alouettes, Toronto Argonauts, Hamilton Tiger-Cats, and Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Eastern Division; Saskatchewan Roughriders, Calgary Stampeders, Edmonton Eskimos, and British Columbia Lions in the Western Division. The field is 110 yards long and 65 yards wide. End zones are 20 yards long. There are twelve players on each team. The rules allow unlimited motion by the backs and three downs to make ten yards. Opposing teams are separated by a one-yard scrimmage line. Scoring is six points for a touchdown, one for the extra point after, three for a field goal, two for a safety touch, and one for a single point from a punt or missed field goal where the ball is not returned from the end zone.

Canadian university football is under the aegis of the Canadian Intercollegiate Athletic Union (CIAU). It has a national championship and trophy, the Vanier Cup, also named for a Canadian governor-general, Georges Vanier. Playoffs are held among the champions of the four regions: Atlantic University Athletic Association (AUAA), Ontario Universities Athletics (OUA), Ontario-Quebec Intercollegiate Football Conference (OQIFC), and Canada West Universities Athletic Association (CWUAA). Junior football as well as recreational flag and touch football are promoted by the CAFA and its provincial affiliates.

Recreationally, as flag football grows in popularity with girls as well as boys, impromptu games of throwing, catching, running, and kicking are as common as traditional Prairie games of baseball, soccer, road hockey, and curling.

Frank Cosentino York University

Cosentino, Frank. Canadian Football: The Grey Cup Years. Toronto: Musson Book Company, Ltd., 1969.

Cosentino, Frank. A Passing Game. Winnipeg: Bain and Cox, 1995.

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