Canada | First among soccer nations

A Canadian all-star soccer team—one member getting ready to light a cigarette—poses in front of totem poles, Stanley Park, Vancouver, ca. 1924. The four totem poles were placed early in the 1920s to mark the area’s long habitation by peoples of West Canada’s First Nations. (Stuart Thomson, City of Vancouver Archives)

Beckham, on Vancouver swing, tries football by Canadian rules

Vancouver, British Columbia | As usual, David Beckham‘s North American barnstorming circuit—with a stop tonight at BC Place Stadium—to us raises more interest in pre-existing soccer traditions than in the soccer actually being played (see Jan 22).

True, the exhibition at 1900 PST between LA Galaxy and Vancouver Whitecaps, of the United Soccer Leagues’ first division, poses an important fitness test for Beckham in advance of England’s final Euro 2008 qualifier, versus Croatia, on Nov 21. For Vancouver, the side evaluates new players and demonstrates the economic potential and native appeal of a sport that sometimes appears subsumed by Canadian rules football, the country’s gridiron variant, and ice hockey. Some 42,000 tickets have been sold for the game under the air-supported dome that the British Columbia Lions of the Canadian Football League call home.

The Whitecaps, birthed in the North American Soccer League in 1974, have engendered devotion and claimed the city’s first major North American title by winning the 1979 Soccer Bowl. An estimated 100,000 paraded on Robson Street downtown.

Former NASL president Clive Toye, in his memoir A Kick in the Grass (St. Johann, 2006), refers to the “maelstrom of Vancouver” when writing about the hijinks during the three-game league quarterfinals with Toronto, in 1983. Whitecaps goalkeeper Tino Lettieri favored a stuffed toy parrot as mascot, which he placed at the back of his net. Toye, president of the Toronto Blizzard at the time, hired men to place a “parrot burial kit” by Lettieri’s goal and tried to relax his team by screening Monty Python’s dead-parrot sketch in the changing room before the final match. Toye calls it “the team talk to end all team talks.”

Toye tried to play the animus between eastern and western Canada to his advantage, but both Ontario and British Columbia can claim distinctive soccer cultures. Toronto FC, despite a Major League Soccer–record 824 minutes without a goal, boasted the league’s most fervent supporters in its inaugural season. Contacts in Vancouver write about the frat-house atmosphere during World Cups, when the city’s many ethnicities—a municipal phone line provides information in English, Chinese, Punjabi, Spanish and Vietnamese—hang flags from balconies and help create a carnival spirit. The city maintains realistic expectation for an MLS expansion team in the near future, if Whitecaps officials can negotiate space for and build a new stadium.

The Canadian men’s team itself has participated in the World Cup once, in 1986, having developed a generation of players through the NASL before the league folded in 1984. In the finals in Mexico, Canada went scoreless in three losses to France, Hungary and the Soviet Union.

Northern Lights,” an etching and aquatint by Inuit artist Germaine Arnaktauyok, depicts the arsarnerit legend, in which Inuit ancestors play football with a walrus skull.

As they did in parts of Africa and Latin America, British miners established football in British Columbia three decades after the province joined the Confederation of Canada in 1871. The sport helped unite mining communities such as Nanaimo, Cumberland and Ladysmith on Vancouver Island.

But ball games had indigenous roots in the northern tier, as they did in Mesoamerica. Mark Nuttall, a University of Alberta anthropologist, has detailed European explorers’ and researchers’ intersections with football-playing Inuit. “In The Central Eskimo,” Nuttall writes, “Franz Boas described ball games (and recorded songs about ball games, including football) played by the Inuit of southern Baffin Island in the Eastern Canadian Arctic in the 1880s.” The ball, according to Boas, consisted of moss-stuffed sealskin. Boas goes on to describe a juggling game, seemingly a variant of the Inuit game of akraurak or aqijut, played on Ulukhaktok, also known as Holman Island, in the Northwest Territories.

According to Kendall Blanchard in The Anthropology of Sport: An Introduction (Bergin Garvey/Greenwood, 1995), akraurak is contested between goals that are “markings in the snow at unspecified distances from each other. Teams kick the ball up and down the field, the object being to drive it across the goal line of an opponent. The game is played predominantly in the spring and summer months, and everyone, regardless of sex or age, may participate” (150).

As Nuttall also writes, Inuit from Greenland and across the Arctic see in aurora borealis, the northern lights, the souls of ancestors. They call these heavenly apparitions arsarnerit, or “the football players.”

Among First Nations, who are distinct from Inuit and another Canadian indigeneous group, the Métis, it is harder to identify a precursor to modern football. Traditions of leisure and games, however, form part of the cyclical life pattern characteristic of aboriginal culture. Recurring competitions such as the Arctic Games and North American Indigenous Games feature traditional sports as well as soccer. Started in 1990, the latter includes more than 9,000 participants in sport and cultural events.

Around Queen Charlotte Strait, on the northern end of Vancouver Island and in mainland BC, a First Nations soccer league has existed since 1958. The Twin Arrows team of young Bahá’í joined the league six years ago. (Copyright © 2006 Bahá’í World News Service)

A report from the Bahá’í World News Service on a soccer league of tribal communities on Vancouver Island contains the tantalizing historical nugget that such games might have been a means of subverting the Canadian government’s ban on potlatch in western provinces. The potlatch consisted of games, ceremonies and feasts that served to order intra- and inter-tribal relations and to mark rites of passage, but missionaries’ alarming reports about the “demonic” practices helped lead to the restrictions that endured until 1951. Another characteristic feature of western First Nations’ cultural practice—the totem pole—typically is erected during potlatch.

“The game of soccer is an institution in many of the native communities,” said Sonny Voyageur during the 2006 Musgamagw Cup, a First Nations–Bahá’í­ competition (“First Nations and Baha’i Youth Bond through Soccer,” 19 Sept 06). He adds that tribes early in the 20th century employed soccer—perhaps having gained knowledge of the rules via expatriate Europeans—as a way to congregate in the face of laws against traditional ceremonies.

Sonny Voyageur’s brother Pudlidi (Ivan Voyageur) says in e-mail correspondence that potlatches generally coincided with sporting contests at Alert Bay in the summers of his youth. But he could not confirm that soccer served as a long-standing tool of resistance. Similarly, Colin Jose, historian for the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame and Museum, said in a conversation Nov 6 that while First Nations communities certainly played soccer early on, “apart from that we know very little.”

True to Vancouver's free-spirited reputation, administrators of Pacific Spirit Regional Park at the University of British Columbia have made nude bathing an option.

Pacific Spirit Regional Park

Generalizing about First Nations practice, of course, is perilous business. More than 600 First Nations governments exist in Canada, or a total of 756,700 people, according to the Assembly of First Nations. In British Columbia alone there are 198, with more than 30 native languages spoken. In what has been called the most complicated treaty negotiation in Canada’s history, aboriginal land rights and title still are being adjudicated with many native bands (see Justine Hunter, “Land-Claims Decision Could Rock Treaty Process,” Globe and Mail, Nov 5). And while four First Nations—Lil’wat, Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh—have signed on as hosting partners of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, seeing the Games as an opportunity for brand building, others view the event “as a threat to dwindling resources and the beginning of the end for their traditional way of life” (Travis Lupick, “First Nations Divided Over 2010 Olympic Games,” The Georgia Straight, Nov 1).

Still, write Donald Reid and Sue Welke, aboriginal people “have had a great deal of difficulty gaining and holding the attention of the Canadian people.” If not ignored, native communities seem always vulnerable to misreading wherever interlopers have invaded and crushed indigenous practice. The value that native cultures give to the spoken word, for example—sometimes expressing itself as a “pensive delay” before speech—“has often been misinterpreted by Euro-Americans as an act of withdrawing. It has also created a stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans as silent and stoic people,” writes Grace Girard.

In the sphere of leisure, if First Nations people are seen to abandon traditional sports for ice hockey or soccer, for instance, they often are branded as cultural assimilators. Curiously, First Nations customs related to potlatch and recreation have historically been appropriated by whites to claim a more authentic version of reality. Native sports such as lacrosse and snowshoeing were adopted, writes Gillian Poulter, to build an idea of Canadian distinctiveness.

Historian Sharon Wall and others have documented the long-standing practice of “playing Indian” at summer camp. Such youth retreats in Ontario and elsewhere in Canada and the United States appropriated bogus aboriginal names and invented native ceremonies that said more about middle-class and upper-middle-class cultural aspirations than they did about authentic custom. Wall writes:

[A]s white campers played at being Indian, contemporary Native children were the target of aggressive campaigns aimed to rid them of their “Indian-ness.” Did campers have any idea, one wonders, that as [camp] directors donned Native headdresses, state laws attempted to bar Aboriginal peoples from appearing publicly in traditional dress? Were they ever aware that as they enthusiastically participated in Indian rituals, Native bands in western provinces were prohibited from holding their own sundance or potlatch ceremonies? (539)

While the definitive account of the First Nations relationship to soccer has yet to be written, historian and author Jose has identified two prominent footballers with aboriginal roots: David Greyeyes (1914–96) of the Cree Nation, who played and toured with the Saskatchewan All-Stars in matches against various English sides, and Terry Felix (Coast Salish), billed as the NASL’s first player of native heritage when he signed for Vancouver in the early 1980s. Felix also played for the Canadian Olympic and national teams.

Certainly there have long been regional teams competing in Vancouver and British Columbia, and we do not know if these included First Nations participants. Commercial photographer Stuart Thomson (see the image at the top of this article) chronicled soccer games in the 1920s, and Thomson’s images of barnstorming baseball teams continue to turn up—most recently, rare prints of the American Giants, a black team from Chicago that toured the West Coast 90 years ago (Tom Hawthorn, “A Storied Portrait of a Team Set Apart,” Globe and Mail, Oct 31).

Hawthorn writes that “Vancouver has a long history as a stop for travelling sports teams in search of an audience,” although Richard Howes, editor of BC Soccer Web, writes that the Beckham visit would not feature in a list of “farcical historical examples” such as the touring baseball Bloomer Girls, who also featured cross-dressers.

Beckham himself has been the subject of gender-bending analysis in Britain, but the most incisive approach may come from Globe and Mail television critic and Guardian Sport Blog contributor John Doyle. Often it takes an interpreter from the north, a witness to the excesses of the cultural colossus to the south, to provide a clear reading. For Doyle, “Beckham may be the worst possible face of soccer in the U.S.” (“Even David Beckham Can’t Sell Soccer in the States,” Nov 5).

Soccer acts as a cultural divide. On the one hand, interest in the game and support for its expansion signals a progressive attitude, a willingness to see the U.S. as part of the larger world, not an isolated place, smug in its status as a world power.

On the other hand, skepticism and even derision for soccer signals American traditionalism. It is a kind of signifier for Republican attitudes. That attitude amounts to hard-line beliefs that the United States is the strongest country in the world, and its sports—NFL football, major league baseball, NBA Basketball—are the best sports. They are manly games that require strength, skill and masculine fortitude.

Beckham, the metrosexual figure, the stylish man who embraces his own popularity with the gay community, is actually a divisive figure in American culture.

Again, Beckham continues to surprise. Plain-spoken and careful never to transgress, he nevertheless serves as a convenient figure for exegesis within the cultural settings through which he moves. “A great deal of meaning can be extrapolated from his stature,” Doyle continues.

As testament to Beckham’s popularity, B.C. Ferries had to add late trips to its sailing schedule on match night. Ever a tempestuous and opinionated region, though, there were skeptics. “[W]hy do they suddenly care when there’s a Beckham game?” reads one comment at the Victoria Times Colonist website. “Is somebody at BC Ferries getting a kickback, or are they palsy with Posh, or what?”


  • Fox, Karen. “Leisure and Indigenous Peoples.” Leisure Studies 25 (October 2006): 403–9.
  • Girard, Grace. “First Nations: Cultures, Values and Recreation.” Presented at the “Seventh Graduate Student Leisure Research Symnposium 1999: Research Pathways in Leisure, Recreation and Tourism,” University of Waterloo, Ontario, 19–20 May 1999.
  • Hall, M. Ann. “The Game of Choice: Girls’ and Women’s Soccer in Canada.” Pages 30–46 in Soccer, Women, Sexual Liberation: Kicking Off a New Era. Edited by Fan Hong and J. A. Mangan. London and Portland, Oreg.: Frank Cass, 2004.
  • Leung, Duncan. “The Kick in Canada: The Game of Soccer in Canada.”, n.d.
  • Nuttall, Mark. “Arsarnerit: Inuit and the Heavenly Game of Football.” In The Global Game: Writers on Soccer. Edited by John Turnbull, Thom Satterlee, and Alon Raab. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, forthcoming.
  • Poulter, Gillian. “Snowshoeing and Lacrosse: Canada’s Nineteenth-Century ‘National Games.’ ” Pages 293–320 in Ethnicity, Sport, Identity: Struggles for Status. Edited by J. A. Mangan and Andrew Ritchie. London: Routledge, 2004.
  • Reid, Donald G., and Sue Welke. “Leisure and Traditional Culture in First Nations Communities.” Journal of Leisurability 25 (winter 1998).
  • Wall, Sharon. “Totem Poles, Teepees, and Token Traditions: ‘Playing Indian’ at Ontario Summer Camps, 1920–1955.” The Canadian Historical Review 86 (summer 2005): 513–44.


  • Drawing on First Nations legends, organizers for the 2010 Winter Olympics on Nov 27 unveiled an amorphous trio of plush-toy-like mascots: Miga, Quatchi and Sumi. The meaning of the creatures is open to interpretation, but Miga, a killer whale and spirit bear hybrid, has been based on the First Nations tales of transformers, who are credited in legend with many of the Northwest’s geographical features. Sumi is a guardian spirit and Quatchi, with a nod to the mainstream among sport-loving Canadians, likes ice hockey (“2010 Vancouver Olympics’ Mascots Inspired by First Nations Creatures,” CBC, Nov 27).
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    Perhaps the most stultifying “highlights” video in the history of world football. CBC, from the press box, captures Beckham’s best moments on Nov 7, including him striding toward the players’ tunnel at the interval. (Copyright © CBC 2007)
  • Beckham played 72 minutes in the 0–0 draw between Vancouver and LA Galaxy on Nov 7, although the highlight might have been the streaker who interrupted proceedings in the second half. The CBC reports that “Beckham and a teammate were seen chortling over the incident” (“Beckham, Streaker Cheered in Vancouver,” Nov 8). The friendly attracted 48,172 to BC Place.

    “Shame there wasn’t any goals,” Beckham said. “Hope they enjoyed it, with the streaker and other things.”

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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  1. [...] rearranged game against the Vancouver Whitecaps of the USL tomorrow night. As the always thoughtful Global Game blog asserts, though, his arrival is more interesting as it “raises more interest in pre-existing soccer [...]

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