The Edmonton CFL franchise is reportedly set to change its name, just days after a survey gauging interest in the decision was heavily criticized online.
TSN on Thursday said sources had informed the sports network the team would drop the word “Eskimos” from its name. An official announcement may follow as soon as next week, TSN reported.
The recent focus on Edmonton’s name follows years of criticism from some who say the word is derogatory and offensive to Inuit.
Prominent Inuit including Nunavut MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, artist Tanya Tagaq, filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, chef Sheila Flaherty, writer and scholar Norma Dunning, and singer songwriter Susan Aglukark have all publicly called for the franchise to change its name.
Inuksuk Mackay, an Inuk actor and performer from Yellowknife who makes up one half of the musical duo Piqsiq, agrees the name should change.
“When I’m out in the world and people see me only as that word – and I have to convince them to use my proper name – it’s a really rocky start to a relationship,” she said.
The term makes it even harder, Mackay said, for Inuit to advocate for things like housing and access to medical care and mental health services.
“It’s a stick in the mud and an indicator that if they won’t respect that, it’ll be really hard to get them to take you seriously when you’re pushing for other changes.”
Mackay pointed to a clip from the documentary Arctic Defenders, shared by co-producer Arnaquq-Baril on Twitter. In it, the founding fathers of Nunavut explain the importance of Inuit using their own word to describe themselves and others respecting that.
Inuksuk Mackay, left, is one half of PIQSIQ, seen in in a promotional photo released to accompany their Christmas album.
“Really it should go no further than that,” Mackay said.
Team founded before Inuit could vote
Mackay noted the Edmonton franchise has had its name longer than Inuit have been able to vote in Canada.
The team has had the name since it was founded in 1949, but a number of Edmonton sports teams have used the name since the late 1800s. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, Inuit were officially qualified to vote in federal elections in 1950 but had no way to exercise those rights until 1962.
When the team adopted the name, Mackay added, Inuit were still forced to wear numbered identification tags around their necks or wrists – similar to dog tags – as white officials could not pronounce or write their names.
“We were at that point not even worth the inconvenience of having our names spoken,” she said.
The federal government introduced its Eskimo Identification system in 1941. Starting in 1945, all Inuit interactions with the federal and territorial governments required identification numbers. It wasn’t until 1972 that Inuit in the NWT (and what is now Nunavut) were no longer required to use them, although they lasted several years longer in northern Quebec.
Mackay said use of derogatory terms negatively impacts the mental health, self-esteem, and cultural pride of Indigenous people, noting that Inuit Nunangat has much higher suicide rates than the rest of Canada.
“We need all of the help that we can possibly get for supports for mental health in the North,” she said. “If we could even do just one thing to lessen that burden, why wouldn’t you just do it?”
Not all Inuit have agreed about the term.
Duane Smith, chair of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, and Jackie Jacobson, the MLA for Nunakput, have both said they do not take issue with the Edmonton franchise’s name. Retired Inuk NHL player Jordin Tootoo recently tweeted a statement saying he was not personally offended by the term, though he added that was not a reason for the Edmonton team to keep its name.
Mackay acknowledged that some Inuit still use the term and, with the lack of Inuit representation, she understands how some view the team’s name as a positive thing.
“I have love and respect for a ton of Inuit who refer to themselves that way,” she said. “I will never tell them how to refer to themselves.”
Mackay said this disagreement is another reason to change the name, as the debate has added to an already sensitive generational gap among Inuit.
“It just feels like such a heartless thing to contribute to,” she said.
“It’s building a million-dollar empire for decades while all we’re left with is fighting amongst ourselves.”
Two major sponsors of the Edmonton franchise – insurance firm Belairdirect and sports betting operator Sports Interaction – have both recently called on the team to change its name. In a statement, Belairdirect said it would end its relationship with the team if it did not see “concrete action in the near future including a name change.”
Boston Pizza ended its sponsorship of the Edmonton franchise in May. In a statement in July it said while the decision was not because of the team’s name, it “would morally support” a name change.
Franchise releases research findings, launches survey
In February, the football franchise said it had decided to keep its name after “no consensus emerged to support a name change” following two years of research by Edelman, a public relations firm.
The franchise released some findings from that research in its 2019 annual report. According to that report, 78 percent of Inuit in the western Arctic opposed changing the team’s name, while 55 percent of Inuit in Nunavut and 31 percent in the eastern Arctic opposed changing the name.
On July 8, Edmonton issued a statement pledging to speed up the process of reviewing its name after Washington’s NFL franchise announced it would be retiring its name and logo.
As part of that process, the Edmonton franchise launched an online survey on Monday, which was closed during the day on Tuesday.
The survey was criticized online by people who found the wording to be biased and the response scale inconsistent. Some questioned the survey’s claim that the name was “chosen more than 100 years ago out of an acknowledgment, perseverance, and hardness of Inuit culture.”
Tagaq, for one, called the survey “boiling badger vomit” on Twitter. Her manager told Cabin Radio she was unavailable for interview.
The Edmonton franchise declined an interview request.