While Edmonton’s CFL team has officially changed its name, some Inuit say that doesn’t mean it should stop engaging with northern communities.
Earlier this month, the football franchise announced it would be dropping the word “Eskimos” from its name in keeping with “sweeping societal change.” The team is currently known as the Edmonton or EE Football Team while its owners select a new name.
The decision followed years of criticism by some who say the term is derogatory and offensive to Inuit. Prominent Inuit who have called for the change include Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Natan Obed, Nunavut MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, and artist Tanya Tagaq.
Inuksuk Mackay, an Inuk actor and performer who makes up one half of the musical duo PIQSIQ, has also advocated for changing the name. She said she was “relieved and immediately tired” when she found out the change was official.
Inuksuk Mackay, left, pictured in a PIQSIQ promotional photo.
“I think it just caught up with me how long people have been lobbying for this,” she said. “It all kind-of came together and I just felt really tired.”
While Mackay said the change is a step in the right direction, she would like to see the CFL franchise contribute to the wellbeing of Inuit communities – whether financially or through in-kind services.
The Edmonton Football Team – Canada’s most northern football franchise – had pledged to improve its relationship with Inuit while it was researching whether to change its name.
In 2018, the team launched its Northern Community Engagement Program to “strengthen the ties between the club and the Inuit community.” That included school visits in Inuvik and Tuktoytakuk in October 2019 and attending the Inuvik Sunrise Festival in January 2020.
Seven other communities in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region have expressed interest in programming.
“Since launching the Northern Community Engagement Program, we have been warmly welcomed in the communities that we have visited. The consistent message was ‘come back and come more often,’” Janice Agrios, chair of Edmonton’s board of directors, was quoted as saying in a news release.
Mackay said when pressure was put on sponsors of the franchise to call for a name change, however, Syncrude – a petroleum production company in Alberta – said that could mean its funding no longer went to sports camps for Inuit youth.
“I thought that was really unfortunate,” Mckay said. “I don’t see why that would need to change.”
In an email to Cabin Radio, a representative from Syncrude said the company didn’t “have anything to add” when it came to the CFL franchise changing its name and that questions about programming should be directed to the team.
“We take a lot of pride in engaging with Indigenous communities,” they wrote. “Our approach continues.”
Outreach ‘owed’ and ‘long overdue’
Alyssa Carpenter, who is Inuvialuit and Dene and grew up in Sachs Harbour and Inuvik, says it will be “a huge loss for youth” if the Edmonton Football Team discontinues its northern outreach program.
She was hired by the franchise to help create a proposal for the program and encouraged the team to improve engagement and dialogue with northern communities.
“To me, it’s long overdue if they were saying they respect and honour Inuit,” she said.
“I think it is owed to each and every northern region that has an Inuit population, kids and youth.”
The Edmonton team has said its former name was originally chosen out of respect for “a resilient northern people.” It began using the name when it was founded in 1949 but other sports teams have used the name since the late 1800s.
Carpenter noted, however, the team had no connection to the culture, history, or experiences of Inuit and the term has been used against Inuit in harmful ways.
She was relieved when the name change was announced.
“Representation really matters,” she said. “It’s been something called upon multiple times and it was just a matter of time before it was going to happen.”
Alyssa Carpenter in a submitted photo.
Carpenter acknowledged that some Inuit don’t find the term offensive, particularly in the western Arctic, and were proud of the football team’s name. Others have said the focus should be on more serious issues affecting Inuit communities like food security, suicide rates, and a lack of mental health supports, infrastructure, and housing.
Carpenter said there will likely never be consensus about the term. But she encourages people who feel those who spoke out about the name were “sensitive” or “overreacting” to listen to why some find the term offensive.
“I think more unity, understanding, and empathy is really needed,” she said.
Carpenter noted she was raised by people who hold pride in the term. She has also spent time with Inuit impacted by relocation, residential schools, the ’60s Scoop, and the Eskimo Identification system – for whom the term brings up trauma.
“I want folks to be really critical, mindful, supportive, and genuinely understanding, and to recognize that if it’s hurtful to one individual, it’s probably hurtful to others who aren’t vocal or don’t want to be,” she said.
Asked by Cabin Radio whether it intends to continue its northern community engagement program, the Edmonton Football Team did not immediately respond.