Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories celebrating the role of sports in Canadian culture as the country marks its 150th birthday this year. We’ve revisited the lives of baseball hall of famer Ferguson Jenkins, speed skater Gaetan Boucher, skier Nancy Greene, figure skater Barbara Ann Scott, distance runner Tom Longboat, Kentucky Derby winner Northern Dancer, sprinter Harry Jerome, auto racing’s Villeneuve family and track star/sports writer Bobbie Rosenfeld. We’ve also explored the Richard Riot along with Babe Ruth’s Canadian origins and Canada’s role in inventing the major North American sports.
Find all of CBC Sports’ Canada 150 stories here.
Not long ago, I visited a gym teacher at a primary school in Wasaga Beach, Ont.
James Carson is the only physical education specialist left in his school and a dying breed in a system where sport is no longer core to the curriculum. He has 26 classes involving approximately 600 students from Kindergarten to Grade 8 and encounters each child once a week for about 40 minutes.
Carson helps them learn to dance, run, high jump, play basketball, soccer, gymnastics and everything else, but mostly he teaches them to compete.
“I’m passionate about it,” he beamed. “I want to develop young athletes who love sport. They learn about the world and they learn that sport brings people together.”
My time with Carson got me thinking about the role sport plays in the life of our country. And beyond that, the contribution it makes to the culture of the people who live here.
It struck me that, as we look back on 150 years of being Canadian, sport is central to the narrative. It’s clearly one of the driving forces of the evolving Canadian identity.
For 150 years our country’s folklore has been inextricably entwined with its celebration of sporting moments and achievements.
For different generations, the fact that a Canadian teenaged swimmer named Marilyn Bell, who conquered Lake Ontario as well as the English Channel, became arguably the country’s biggest news event of the 1950′s, or that Paul Henderson’s goal against the Soviets in a 1970s hockey game riveted school children in their classrooms and workers on the line in steel mills and automobile factories, is often overlooked, perhaps even undervalued.
So it is that the Montreal Canadians, the Toronto Blue Jays, the Saskatchewan Roughriders, as well as countless other teams, have captured the imagination of their devotees at various points in Canadian history.
They represent communities and the ambitions of the people who live in them. Each triumph savoured, each defeat mourned by the collective.
Indigenous distance runner Tom Longboat, Olympic sprinting champion Donovan Bailey, hockey star Wayne Gretzky, late curling icon Sandra Schmirler and soccer phenomenon Christine Sinclair naturally count themselves among our most famous and influential citizens and are destined to become enshrined in halls of fame.
Along with our many pioneering sporting achievers, their legacies will be admired by succeeding generations.
A country of many talents
As we all gather to observe “Canada 150″ and the landmark birthday of an impressive country, we will no doubt bend over backwards to shed light on the importance of the many contributors to the national story. This is both honourable and natural for a country with a history like ours, one which has unfolded next door to our gigantic and culturally influential neighbour to the south.
We’ll illuminate our prolific Canadian musical talent and demonstrate how we express ourselves lyrically through our writers, actors and comedians, as well as through our many artists and entertainers.
We’ll also reflect on the soldiers of strife and political decision makers who have defended our beliefs and shaped our view of the world. We will rightfully applaud our academics, innovators and philanthropists, not to mention the giants of industry and commerce.
These pursuits and these people have paved the way for our country to become one of the most generous and prosperous on earth.
The evidence is in the belief held by the vast majority that we, as modern Canadians, must respect and embrace our Indigenous heritage while being open to the inclusion of people from other places who desire to make a contribution to our remarkable journey.
But as we observe this special Canadian birthday, we should also applaud the fact that Canadians regularly gather in rinks, arenas, stadiums, fields, gymnasiums, tracks and swimming pools in huge numbers.
We continue to write our national story by appreciating a physically competitive spirit.
The universal language
Not lost on us is the fact that we are a sporting people and that millions of us are passionate about things like hockey, curling, Canadian football, soccer, basketball, baseball and all the sports which comprise the Olympic Games.
It’s an acknowledged truth that, for many arriving Canadians, the first point of contact with their new communities is on the soccer pitch or local field of play.
Sport is the universal language which can connect cultures.
While it is not perfect by any means, sport affords the country a chance to tackle sensitive cultural and societal issues which other institutions often shy away from. These are issues of racial and gender equality in addition to the acceptance of people with different faiths and sexual orientations.
This is not to mention the cohesive power of sport and the pride that communities feel when local heroes excel on the national and international stage. Who can deny, for example, the importance of the Canadian champion Laval University football team to the people of Quebec City?
The accomplishments of the remarkable young swimmer Penny Oleksiak have become incredibly important to folks not only in Toronto’s East End but throughout the country. Sprinter Andre De Grasse is undeniably attracting the attention of legions of Canadians in his quest to become the world’s fastest man.
The same can be said of the Canadian women’s rugby sevens team and the national women’s soccer team, who have inspired a generation of ambitious female athletes through their exploits at the Olympic Games.
The fact remains that sport, as much as anything else, brings this country together.
It embodies the celebrants.
The Grey Cup, the Stanley Cup, the Brier, the World Junior Hockey Championship and the Olympics are each a testament to that.
The biggest television event of the past year in this country was the Tragically Hip concert broadcast live from Kingston, Ont., and it delivered an historic impact on the Canadian consciousness.
It was simply a beloved band and singer performing a commercial-free show which aired on the public broadcaster, and yet it grabbed much of the country by the throat while tugging on the national heartstrings.
Much of the promotion was conducted through the Olympic broadcast. A large portion of the audience was delivered on the heels of a thrilling track and field final in a stadium in Rio de Janeiro where Melissa Bishop of Canada finished a valiant fourth in the 800 metres.
The music itself was played on a stage set up in the middle of a hockey rink in Kingston.
Not only that, but the first song that lead singer Gord Downie belted out had as its subject matter the death of Bill Barilko, a fabled NHL player who helped the Toronto Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup before he perished in a plane crash.
The point being that sport, and our way of relating to it, is almost instinctual to most Canadians. It’s something that we can often take for granted, but to ignore it and fail to nurture its survival would most assuredly be at our peril.
As I watched a class of Grade 2 kids rush into Mr. Carson’s gymnasium in Wasaga Beach that day, I noticed one little guy proudly wearing his Raptors t-shirt and a Blue Jays baseball cap. He ran over and tugged on his teacher’s hand.
“This is my favourite class,” he gushed. “It’s my very favourite thing.”
For James Carson, it was like uncovering a golden nugget.
“I try my best and I’m not perfect,” he shrugged. “I want them to have a passion for sport and for moving and to take that home to their families. I have respect for people who respect sport, those who have gone before, and appreciate the opportunity to play.”
Sometimes it can be easy to overlook the unsung hero of the national story.
Still, as the country gathers to bask in the glow of 150 birthday candles, it’s good to be reminded of what sport undeniably contributes to the Canadian plot.