Day 6

Could corporate sponsors force Edmonton's CFL team to change its name?

Following a re-mobilization of the Black Lives Matter movement, sports teams with names depicting Indigenous people face a reckoning — and corporate sponsors have joined the fight.

Inuk author Norma Dunning says conversation has reached ‘very ripe time of change'

A sponsor for the Edmonton CFL team has threatened to sever ties with the team unless the organization commits to changing its name. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Following a re-mobilization of the Black Lives Matter movement, sports teams with names depicting Indigenous people face a reckoning — and corporate sponsors have joined the fight.

This week, insurance company Belairdirect threatened to cut ties with the Canadian Football League's Edmonton team if they didn't change their team name.

The team said they will accelerate discussions and provide an update at the end of July

Moshe Lander, a sports economist at Concordia University in Montreal, says the Edmonton football team — and the CFL especially — are more sensitive to sponsorship pressure.

"The loss of a partner … could be the difference between [whether] you're here today or you're really gone for good tomorrow," Lander told Day 6.

Conversations about changing the sports teams' racist names have gone on for decades.

Norma Dunning, an Inuk author based in Edmonton, has spoken out about the Edmonton CFL team's name for years. This time, however, feels different to her.

"It's come back to the fore at a very ripe time of change," she said.

Norma Dunning is an Inuk author based in Edmonton. (Submitted by Norma Dunning)

The etymology of the Edmonton team's name is a bit messy. It was thought to originate from the Cree word askamiciw, which means "he eats it raw."

Another theory traces it to the Latin word excommunicati, meaning "the excommunicated ones."

Lawrence Kaplan, director of the Alaska Native Language Center, said linguists now think the word came from the Innu word ayas̆kimew, which roughly translates to "a person who laces snowshoes." 

That's the main problem with 'Eskimo.' It's a name imposed by Europeans.- Lawrence Kaplan

But Kaplan says Inuit and other Indigenous people in the northern parts of Greenland, the United States, Canada and Russia have moved away from the term, opting instead for autonyms, or names they've given themselves. 

"That's the main problem with 'Eskimo.' It's not whether it's about eating raw meat or netting snowshoes but that it's a name imposed by Europeans," Kaplan said.

"Indigenous groups want to be known by their own names, which seems completely legitimate and understandable."

As northern communities move away from the term, Dunning wonders why Edmonton's CFL continues to use it.

"What matters at this point is how that word affects Inuit populations in the present day," she said. "How does this word affect my five grandchildren?"

Lander says at the end of the day, for the team, it's not about how the word affects Inuit.

"It's always money with a business," Lander said. "That decision to stick with … [the name in] Edmonton has never been substantial enough to say, 'Wait a minute, this going to affect our bottom line.'"

Moshe Lander is a sports economist at Concordia University in Montreal.

Lander said that if done right, finding a team name that works for all fans can actually be a money-maker for teams, who would then be able to sell new merchandise.

For Dunning, it doesn't matter whether pressure comes from society, personal morals or sponsors — as long as the name gets changed.

"We can make a change. We can fuel that change," she said. "To me, that's the beauty in it this time."

Written and produced by Kyle Muzyka.

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