It might only be a CFL exhibition game, but it will be a historic first for Emily Clarke and Georgina Paull.
The two will become the first female officials to work in a CFL game when the Calgary Stampeders host the Saskatchewan Roughriders at McMahon Stadium. Clarke, 30, of Dundas, Ont., will serve as a side judge while Paull, a 31-year-old Montreal native, will be a line judge.
"It’s definitely a big moment for both of us, the league and females in general moving forward with football be it in a coaching or officiating capacity," Clarke said during a telephone interview. "I’m very excited about it.
"I’m excited about where it might take me and where it might take other females in the sport."
Darren Hackwood, the CFL’s senior director of officials, said the two women were both on the league’s top-30 prospects list and among the top performers at its pre-season officials camp.
"It was them, they earned this," Hackwood said. "We’re really excited to get them on the field.
"We’re actively trying to promote women in officiating because there’s been a void. We’re hopeful now that two have made it to the field here, others will see it and we’ll get more signing up at the amateur level, the trickle-down effect."
"Gosh, I really do hope it gets more females into this," she said. "I’m not sure why there’s not many females specifically officiating football because we have a lot in basketball now, the same with soccer and hockey.
"But for some reason football hasn’t seemed to get there so I think this might really help."
Clarke has seen signs first-hand of that happening.
"Last fall I was in Cochrane, Alta., doing a high school game and before the kickoff a mother of a player came up to me," she said. "She’d seen me working a couple of games earlier in the season when we started talking she said, ‘Seeing you out there makes me think why aren’t I out there, why can’t I get involved with it?’
"She has actually contacted our association in Calgary and registered to do her level 1 course later this summer. I really haven’t thought of it too much (being a football pioneer) but it’s definitely kind of what we’re turning into at this point being the first two female officials with the CFL."
The CFL assignment is for just one game. Afterwards, Clarke and Paull will return to their associations in Calgary and Montreal, respectively, however both will remain on the league’s radar.
"There’ll be a CFL official who’ll mentor them for the season, watch a couple of their games and get them to work on stuff that we notice needs working on," Hackwood said.
Clarke and Paull both played football for years before becoming officials.
Clarke is a physical education teacher/athletic director in Langdon, Alta. — which is roughly 40 kilometres from Calgary — as well as a ski coach. She began officiating six- and seven-year-olds growing up in Dundas and is currently a Canada West official and in her 17th season as an official.
"One year my home association began a spring league to get kids exposed to the sport," Clarke said. "I embraced the opportunity (to officiate) because it was a really comfortable setting for me.
"It was where I’d grown up playing and I knew many of families who had kids playing at that age as well as the people coaching. My dad was also heavily involved with the association and coaching so it was probably the best-case scenario for me because there really was never any pressure."
Paull earned her PhD in atmospheric science from McGill last year and currently works for Environment and Climate Change Canada. In her seventh season of officiating, Paull has worked at the CEGEP (Quebec junior college) level as well as at the ’17 women’s tackle world championship and ’18 U Sports East-West Bowl.
"I’ve been fortunate to have many great mentors so I feel like I haven’t faced many challenges," Paull said. "You’ve always got coaches who’re on you but I’ve never felt like they were treating me differently from other officials so it’s not been a gender-based thing."
Clarke and Paull plan to treat Friday’s contest as just another game. As for dealing with CFL players and coaches, both agree the key is showing they know the rules inside and out in a calm, professional manner.
"It’s definitely a different level because with these (players and coaches), it’s their job," Clarke said. "These guys all know their stuff so when they ask a question they want a professional answer and we have to give it to them.
"It’s nothing I wouldn’t do on a regular basis dealing with kids at school or my principal or anything like that so I feel well prepared for it."
Added Paull: "It’s exactly like the game I’d normally officiate other than the players are bigger and faster. All of the rules are the same … it’s the same sport, the same field. Yes, it’s definitely going to be fast, don’t get me wrong, but it’s nice to have so many other very well-trained eyes out there to help. We’ll be well surrounded."
Both women would relish the opportunity to become a full-time CFL official.
"Absolutely," Paull said. "That’s sort of the goal I’m working towards. If they see I can do it, then, I’d love to, I’d definitely be for that."
Added Clarke: "It’s hard not to (think about becoming full-time official). But right now my goal is to go out and do the best I can, then hopefully be invited back to camp again next year. Just one step at a time."