Patience. In time, the Edmonton Eskimos name will change
“The issue of Inuit being used as a sports team mascot matters”
It’s likely to take much, much longer than some people might wish, but it’s only a matter of time before the Edmonton Eskimos football team decides to change its name.
And that will not occur because the name is or is not deemed offensive.
It will happen for a different reason: it’s the very idea of naming a sports entertainment business after a group of human beings that is the truly offensive act.
That’s the gist of the argument that Natan Obed, recently sworn in to a second term as president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, has been making since 2015, when he began to lead the national Inuit organization.
“The colonial legacy of naming is about power and control. The issue of Inuit being used as a sports team mascot matters, because this is the way this legacy continues to play out in popular culture,” Obed said in a commentary published in Nunatsiaq News.
So it doesn’t matter, even though it’s an important esthetic and cultural issue for many people, whether or not you believe the word “Eskimo” is offensive.
What’s offensive is its use as a branding tool by a sports franchise. And that raises universal ethical principles of concern to all Canadians, Inuit and non-Inuit.
Obviously, the status of the word “Eskimo” is a question for Inuit to work out for themselves. To suggest otherwise would be to run roughshod over an essential element of the right to self-determination: the right to name oneself.
And as far as that goes, the available evidence shows there is no consensus. Multiple Inuit, especially from the western regions, have given media interviews stating the word is not offensive to them and is even a source of pride. Many others have said the same on Facebook and other social media platforms.
But the issue is even more complicated than that. In 2013, the now defunct Norterra Corp., then owned by two major Inuit birthright corporations, the Nunasi Corp. of Nunavut, and the Inuvialuit Development Corp. of the western Northwest Territories, began to promote itself as the “official airline of the Edmonton Eskimos.”
Now under the sole ownership of IDC, Canadian North still uses that relationship with the Edmonton football club, as well as its relationship with the Canadian Football League, to market its air charter business.
That IDC would wish to do that is unremarkable. The fragile nature of the northern airline market means that to maintain financial viability, northern air carriers must keep their customers happy and retain all the revenue they can lay their hands on.
And at the same time, the IDC must ensure its subsidiary companies are profitable. As with all other birthright corporations, that’s a duty they owe to their beneficiaries.
This likely explains why Duane Smith, chair of the Inuvialuit Regional Council, moments after Obed was sworn in to a second three-year term in Inuvik last week, presented the ITK president with an Edmonton Eskimos ball cap, provoking gales of laughter.
It’s within this context that Len Rhodes, the CEO and president of the Edmonton football club, held meetings on the naming issue with Inuit in Ottawa, Yellowknife and Iqaluit. He was, no doubt, seeking people willing to tell him they have no problem with the name. And it’s likely that those who honestly hold that view were easy to find.
It’s worth remembering also that the Edmonton football franchise is a financially vulnerable organization. Like most CFL clubs, it’s a small-time, marginal operation. In 2017, the Edmonton Eskimos reported operating revenues of $24.7 million and a net profit of only $431,638.
Compare that with big, wealthy organizations like Manchester United (2017 revenues of US$784.6 million) or the New York Yankees (2017 revenues of US$619 million).
So because the Edmonton football club’s current name is integral to the marketing campaigns they use to generate badly needed revenue, they’re not likely to change their name any time soon. They won’t give up easily.
But in time, they will. Because eventually, non-Inuit Canadians will grasp the logic behind the universal ethical argument that Obed has been making: that it’s wrong to use human beings as sports mascots.
Yes, this may be a hopelessly optimistic prediction. But in time, it will happen, though not as quickly as some would like. JB