Eskimos speed up name review as sponsor backlash builds

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 promised to speed up a review of its name and provide an update at the end of the month after at least one of its sponsors announced it plans to cut ties with the Canadian Football League team unless it changes its name.

Other corporate sponsors, meanwhile, say they are watching closely for the results of the review.

National car-and-home insurance provider Belairdirect, one of the team’s 13 premier partners, said Tuesday it is rethinking their relationship.

"In order for us to move forward and continue on with our partnership, we will need to see concrete action in the near future including a commitment to a name change," company spokeswoman Jennifer Beck said in an email.

"We acknowledge that change is a journey and have shared our position with the team."

The Edmonton team declined to comment on its sponsor’s position, saying a statement released Wednesday morning would be the only comment the team would make at this time.

"We acknowledge and appreciate the feedback and input regarding our name," it said in the statement, noting it takes the issue seriously and highlighted three years it has spent engaging Canada’s northern communities and conducting research.

The team has seen repeated calls for a name change in the past and faces renewed criticism as sports teams in Canada, the United States and elsewhere are urged to remove outdated and sometimes racist names and images.

Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians, who retired their racist caricature "Chief Wahoo" logo in 2018 but kept their team name, and the National Football League’s Washington Redskins, whose name contains a racial slur, both said on Friday they would undertake a review.

The National Hockey League’s Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday said they will continue to use their team name because it honours an Indigenous leader who has been an inspiration to generations.

In February, the Eskimos released a decision to keep the team’s name following its research and engagement program that it said found "no consensus" on the current name.

Late last week, it changed its tone, saying the team would "ramp up" ongoing consultations with Inuit communities, recognizing the "increased attention" the name has received recently.

In the Wednesday announcement, it said "a lot has occurred since" it gathered the information that informed the February decision and it will seek more input from the Inuit, its partners and other stakeholders. It will complete the review as quickly as possible and provide an update by the end of July, it said.

Many of the Edmonton team’s other sponsors welcomed any review of the team name.

Maple Leaf Foods is in the final year of a three-year partnership with the team.

"Many important conversations are occurring right now around race and ethnicity in Canada and within our own company," said Janet Riley, vice-president of communications and public affairs, in an emailed statement.

"Maple Leaf Foods is deeply committed to diversity and inclusion, and recognizes the need for language, behaviours and actions to be racially and ethnically sensitive and appropriate."

The company is encouraged by the news of continued dialogue between the team and the Inuit community, she said, and looks forward to learning the outcome and next steps.

"The decision the team reaches will be considered as we evaluate our next partnership agreement with the team."

A Jiffy Lube location in Edmonton supports the further engagement, wrote Kelly McClung, vice-president of marketing and operations for Lube-X and Jiffy Lube operator in Canada.

"We look forward to hearing feedback from their ongoing discussions," she said.

Fisherman’s Friend also expressed support for the re-engagement.

"We … are looking forward to the timely and respectful progression of those conversations along with a positive outcome for all," wrote Brian Riddell, who works with TFB & Associates Ltd., the Canadian distributor for the lozenges brand.

"We’re going to wait until the conclusion of the study that the team is doing to make any further decisions," he said when asked whether Fisherman’s Friend would continue to partner with the team regardless of its name.

An Edmonton location of The Rec Room, an entertainment space owned by Cineplex, is also listed as a premier partner of the Eskimos.

Continuing the relationship "isn’t part of our marketing plans for 2020," wrote Sarah Van Lange, Cineplex’s executive director of communications, in an email.

"That said, we support their review of the team’s name and encourage them to do the right thing."

Asked what the right thing is, Van Lange referred back to the original statement. However, she noted the company’s locations were closed for several months due to the COVID-19 outbreak "and all marketing plans were put on hold during that time."

Tim Hortons said it has "been in contact with the team, but they can best speak to their review process and engagement with Inuit communities." It did not respond to questions about whether it intends to continue its partnership.

A Skip The Dishes spokesperson declined to comment and referred all questions to the team.

Coca-Cola Canada Bottling Ltd., which has a product partnership with the team, said it has spoken with team management and shared its concerns about the name

"We have asked them to strive for consensus about their name in their community engagement activities with Inuit communities as soon as possible," spokeswoman Kathy Murphy said in an email.

There have been repeated calls for the Edmonton team to change its name in the past.

Most recently, 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.

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

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.