Canada has spawned its share of imaginary, home-spun tales during its 132 years of life, myths such as Ogopogo, Sasquatch and balanced government budgets.
But there was another fallacy that hoodwinked even the most knowledgeable historians and scholars: Lacrosse was the National Game of Canada by an Act of Parliament passed in the year of Confederation.
Take, for example, Menke’s Encyclopedia of Sports: “Lacrosse, the national game of Canada by legislative act, is a development of the Canadian Indian game of baggataway”. Or the 1902 edition of “The Canadian Magazine” which declared “on the day on which the different provinces of Canada were united into one grand Dominion – July 1, 1867 – the game lacrosse was established as the national game of the new Dominion. And then there’s my trusty 1973 Funk & Wagnall: “Lacrosse, always a popular game in Canada, was adopted in 1867 by an Act of Parliament as the Canadian National Game…”.
And then, in 1964, this House of Fiction came tumbling down, huffed and puffed into oblivion by a big bad wolf called Jack Roxburgh, a Member of Parliament and a former President of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association. He introduced a bill in Parliament that would declare hockey as the country’s national sport.
It seems while researching Parliamentary statutes, he found no evidence supporting lacrosse’s time-honoured claim. This myth apparently began with Dr. W. George Beers, a Montreal dentist, who penned a rulebook to bring some form of organization to the sport he loved with a passion(he was a goalie and you know it takes very little to get them aroused).
Dr. Beers published his book under the name of “Lacrosse, the National Game of Canada” and set about arranging exhibition matches, forming leagues, and taking part in an organizational meeting in Kingston for a national association. It was Confederation year and the influential Dr. Beers repeatedly asserted that he had indications from some politicians that they were ready to make lacrosse the official game of the new Dominion.
The national reputation undoubtedly gained greater credibility in 1873 when William k. McNaught, a former president of the National Lacrosse Association of Canada, wrote in his “Lacrosse and How to Play It”:
“On the day when the provinces united to form one great Dominion, the patriotic youth of Canada adopted lacrosse as the national game of their native country. This game has, on account of its intrinsic merits, been adopted by young Canada as the national game of our rising Dominion.
In 1876 and again in 1883, Dr. Beers took teams to Europe for a series of exhibition matches, one of which was a command performance for Queen Victoria. Dr. Beers billed the tour as the National Game of Canada.
Thus, the myth grew to become an acceptable fact – that is until spoilsport Roxburgh came along.
Canada was born on July 1, 1867, but the first elections weren’t held until August 7 and the first Parliament didn’t assemble until November. There was no Hansard in those formative years but a daily journal was kept when the House of Commons sat.
Roxburgh’s research had him rummaging through the journals of the House, the legal records of proceedings, and the weekly Canada Gazette in which all laws passed by Parliament are reported. He even let his fingers do the walking through Britain’s London Gazette on the chance that, in the early days of Confederation, Canadian laws might have been recorded by the Motherland.
Zilch! No lacrosse legislation, not even a debate.
And so Roxburgh announced he intended to introduce a bill that would proclaim hockey as the official sport of Canada. What lacrosse desperately needed was a knight in shining armour to champion its time-honoured reputation. Enter, centre stage, Burnaby-Richmond MP Robert Prittie. He countered Roxburgh by filing his own Private Member’s bill in favour of “rectifying what was probably an oversight on the part of the Fathers of Confederation”.
Bill No. C-2 was brought forth for Commons debate on June 11, 1965.
Said Prittie: “I think it is fitting at this time when we are considering national flags, national anthems and other national symbols, that this particular matter should be settled now. A few months ago, no one thought such a bill was necessary. I’m sure they would have assumed the lacrosse was our national sport”.
The, referring to Roxburgh’s research, Prittie said his bill was to correct the oversight at Confederation: “I would base my claim for recognition of lacrosse as our official game on two main points. It was played by the Indians a very long time ago…the least we can do is to recognize their game as the national game of the country. The second point we should take into account is the historical fact that lacrosse has long been considered the national game”.
Many MP’s spoke on behalf of the Bill – spoke so long, in fact, that the Speaker ruled that the hour for consideration of a Private Member’s Bill had expired and, therefore, adjourned the House. Both Roxburgh’s and Prittie’s bills dropped to the bottom of the order paper behind 103 other measures. As you might guess, Parliament was dissolved before either bill could again be debated.
In 1967, on Canada’s 100th birthday, the Honourable Lester B. Pearson proposed having separate national summer and winter sports. But, true to the government’s tradition of procrastination, the matter lay dormant for another 27 years.
In April, 1994, Kamloops MP Nelson Riis tabled Bill C-212 called for hockey to be knighted as the national game. Lacrosse supporters, led by Mission-Coquitlam MP Daphne Jennings, again met the challenge.
“It’s an insult to introduce a bill that forgets about lacrosse”, reasoned Jennings who just happens to be Jack Bionda‘s sister-in-law.
Bill C-212 was amended to recognize both sports and, miracle of miracles, passed through all stages of debate. It was now official – lacrosse represented the summer and hockey the winter as Canada’s official sports.
Quipped MP John Harvard: “This amendment is in itself a great symbol of the way we do politics in the country because this is the quintessential Canadian compromise”.