Reclaiming Tom Longboat

8 October 2020

Reclaiming Tom Longboat: Indigenous Self-Determination in Canadian Sport
by Janice Forsyth
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Elena Bentley
$27.95 ISBN 9780889777286

Although the famed Onondaga athlete features in the title, Tom Longboat (Cogwagee) is not the focus of Janice Forsyth’s new book, Reclaiming Tom Longboat: Indigenous Self-Determination in Canadian Sport; rather, it is the Tom Longboat Awards that serve as the focal point for which Forsyth’s expert examination of Indigenous sport in Canada revolves.

For over five decades, the Tom Longboat Awards have been subject to the various political agendas of the organizations between which it has passed hands. Conceived of by Jan Eisenhardt and Indian Affairs in 1951, Forsyth explains that the Awards were “no mere accident of history. Nor were they the consequence of serendipity, [or] of the right people coming together at the right time without political intent.” The Awards were a purposeful attempt made by the Federal Government to quantify and regulate Indigenous bodies through encouraging participation in mainstream sport.

Throughout the 70s and 80s as Indigenous leaders became more politically active, they, too, realized the “symbolic value of sport” and used the Awards as “an opportunity to broadcast messages about the significance of self-determination” and “cultural expression.” What Forsyth’s research shows, is that whether used as a tool for assimilation or for self-determination, the Tom Longboat Awards have never been a “simpl[e] celebration of Indigenous athleticism.”

Lost amongst the political agendas of the organizations, and the often stereotypical and racist media coverage, were the recipients’ own stories. A 2002 Tom Longboat Awards recipient herself, Forsyth discovered that recipients “were rarely granted an opportunity to say something about being an award winner.” While official documents and other sources of information are valuable, “there is a danger in writing a history that privileges the dominant voices.” The recipients, writes Forsyth, “deserve a place to tell their side of the story without having their experiences buried or distorted by the messages that the award organizers wished to convey.”

In an attempt to amplify the voices of the Tom Longboat Awards winners, Forsyth dedicates the final chapter of this book to them, giving their stories “pride of place” and “narrative power.” I commend Forsyth on this structural decision, for in doing so, she rewrites the narrative – or the playbook, as it were – surrounding the Awards. Due to space and the nature of the project, all of the recipients’ stories could not have been included; still, I would have liked this chapter to be more substantial given its significance to the overall structure and purpose of the book. While I found the entire book extremely fascinating, I believe the final chapter is the most profound and illuminating.

The complex history of the Tom Longboat Awards, along with the recipients’ stories collected in this book, will no doubt encourage further conversation on the relationship between Indigenous peoples, sport, and Canada. And, despite being posited as a scholarly text, it is sure to garner fans well beyond the realm of academia.

In short, Forsyth wins MVP – most valuable publication – for her important literary contribution.


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