Edmonton’s CFL team dropping use of name ‘Eskimos’

edmonton-eskimos-helmets-on-a-football-field

Helmets belonging to members of the Edmonton Eskimos sit on the field during a team practice in Winnipeg. (John Woods/CP)

The Edmonton Eskimos are no longer in the CFL.

The franchise announced Tuesday it’s discontinuing the Eskimos name. It follows a similar decision by the NFL’s Washington team as pressure mounts on teams to eliminate racist or stereotypical names.

The Edmonton club will begin "a comprehensive engagement process" on a new name. Until then, the franchise will be called EE Football Team and Edmonton Football Team.

"But 2020 is already a year of unprecedented upheaval," team board chair Janice Agrios said during a videoconference. "Our most recent opinion research shows plainly that views are shifting quickly.

"People who defended the name only a year ago are less comfortable with it now. Institutions are being renamed around the world. The change to our name is part of a sweeping societal change.

"Thank-you to those members of the Inuit community who spent time sharing their views with us the past three years. To those Inuit who told us they loved having a football team called the Eskimos, we hope we can continue to be your team. To those who were offended by the name, we have heard you and recognize your concerns."

Edmonton president Chris Presson added the club hopes it can keep its double-E logo and green and gold colours.

"I can tell you that we sure love our green and gold and double E," he said. "It’s early days but we hope to keep that iconic logo."

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The decision comes following a review by the franchise after it twice opted to maintain its team name. The Eskimos moniker has been tied to sports teams in Edmonton since the 19th century but critics say the name is derogatory and a colonial-era term for Inuit.

In February, the franchise announced it was keeping the name after a year-long research that involved Inuit leaders and community members across Canada. The club said it received "no consensus" during that review.

On July 8, the club promised to speed up another review of its name and provide an update by month’s end. In that statement, the Edmonton franchise noted "a lot has happened" since it made the decision in February.

One of the team’s sponsors, national car-and-home insurance provider Belairdirect, had announced a day earlier that it was rethinking its relationship with the team because of the name. Others added they’d would welcome a review of the name.

"No one event sparked this decision," Agrios said. "We’ve had open conversations with partners, community and fans about this issue for several years now.

"We’re proud of the engagement that we’ve done. Our recent engagement has clearly indicated that attitudes toward the team name have been shifting and we made the decision based on that."

All this happened as NFL’s Washington team said it would undergo a thorough review of its name. A similar announcement was made by Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians.

It is unclear when Edmonton will play its first game with a new name. The CFL in June postponed the start of its 2020 season because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Presson said the franchise definitely won’t have a new name in time for the start of a 2020 season, which won’t begin until September, at the earliest. It also is possible there will not be a 2020 season.

There have been repeated calls in the past for the Edmonton team to change its name. Canada’s national Inuit organization in 2015 said it was time for a change.

"It isn’t right for any team to be named after an ethnic group," said Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, which represents Canada’s 60,000 Inuit. Obed has said that Inuit people are not mascots.

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson, citing Obed’s statement, said in 2017 the team should take steps toward a name change.

Although American Inuit continue to use the word Eskimo, Canada’s northern people left that name behind about the same time they began negotiating their land claim in the 1970s.

Many historians believe the origin of Eskimo comes from an Algonquin term meaning "eaters of raw meat." Others believe it comes from another Aboriginal term that refers to people wearing snowshoes.

The people themselves have used the word Inuit for centuries. It means "the people" in Inuktut.

Founded in 1949, the Edmonton team has won the Grey Cup 14 times, second only to the Toronto Argonauts at 17. The community-owned club’s impressive history on the field includes a record five consecutive Grey Cups from 1978 to 1982.

"To those of us who spent our formative years bundling up to sit in the stands and cheer on our team in below-zero temperatures, the name Eskimos meant tough, resilient, never give up," Agrios said. "It also meant community and respect, we identified with this name.

"In recent years however, we’ve come to understand the concerns with the name. Today culminates a long journey. Some people have suggested our research and engagement efforts were just optics trying to justify keeping the name. Nothing could be further from the truth."

Edmonton set a North American pro sports record by qualifying for the playoffs in 34 straight seasons from 1972 to 2005.

The team applied for the trademark "Edmonton Empire" in 2018 for use on souvenir items.

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