Important, award-winning contribution to the literature on Indigenous sports in society


Malcolm MacLean
University of Gloucestershire


Janice Forsyth
Reclaiming Tom Longboat: Indigenous Self-Determination in Canadian Sport
241 pages, paperback, ill.
Regina, SK: University of Regina Press 2020
ISBN 978-0-88977-728-6

Questions of imperial and colonial relations have played a vital role in the development of one significant strand of sports history, at least in its British form focusing on its global presence. More recently and in the wake of administrative-juridical decolonization, the former emphasis on Britain’s empire is more closely linked to other sport histories both in and beyond the English-speaking worlds through a focus on nation-building. These explorations of sport suggest, often unwittingly, its essential modernity and place in the global matrix of power that is coloniality/modernity.

Yet despite the voluminous literature exploring these questions, there are very few contexts were this imperial and colonial inflection takes account of Indigenous voices or experience, or even recognises the distinctiveness of the place of Indigenous peoples in those national sport histories. As a result, one of the most exciting changes in the last 15 or so years has been the growing recognition of Empire’s Indigenous peoples in scholarship led by Indigenous scholars – in particular work by Janice Forsyth, Christine O’Bonsawin and Brendan Hokowhitū among others. All this is by way of saying that Janice Forsyth’s first monograph is an exciting development for those of us also working around these questions. It is an excellent piece of work that calls on us to significantly rethink many of the simplicities of convention. In the interests of transparency, I note first that I am included (favourably) in the acknowledgements, and second that I was chair of the panel that awarded this book the 2021 NASSH Monograph Prize: these comments are mine alone.

In a relatively concise, engaging and lucid analysis Forsyth has in effect given us three books. The first is the history of an award for Indigenous athletes in Canada – the Tom Longboat Award created in 1951. The second is an analysis of Indigenous peoples in Canadian sport policy, including the various ways the Residential Schools, national fitness campaigns and elite sport promotion engaged, or failed to engage, Indigenous communities. The third is an exploration of an emerging site and form of cultural activism in self-determination politics that also challenges the coloniality of sports’ governance and advocacy institutions. These three sets of issues are woven together in a way that suggests not only a clear commitment to scholarly practice but also to those involved in this work and wider issues of Indigenous sport and physical activity promotion and development, at least in Canada.

The substance of the book turns around three central chapters looking at the Tom Longboat Awards (TLA) from their formation in 1951 through to 2001. This 50-year period also covers the three major eras of the TLA’s ‘ownership’ – first by the Federal government, second by Indigenous political representative groups in conjunction with mainstream sport advocacy and governance agencies and finally by Indigenous sport organizations. This framing of the Award means that Forsyth’s focus on Indigenous involvement in administration of the TLA includes non-involvement, Indigenous but non-sport-specific involvement and leadership by the Indigenous sport community.

Much but not all of this discussion turns on Indigenous engagements with sport in the Residential School system – a vital part in the cultural genocide that marked the Canadian settler colonial mission.

There is a risk here that the narrative could have turned into a Whiggish congratulatory tale of increasingly successful self-determination, with Indigenous peoples gaining more control over the celebration of their own success. This risk is successfully mitigated by two principal aspects to the case, however. The first is the scepticism about the decisions in the late 1990s and early 2000s to link the announcement of national award winners to the Canadian Sport Awards, lowering the profile of the TLA and allowing it to be lost in the non-televised part of the CSA ceremony. The second is what comes next in the book, where it closes with the voices of a number of award winners exploring what it meant and means to them, and allowing Forsyth, in a citation of work by Paul Thompson, to undermine the narrative of a “power structure … shaping the past in its own image” (p146).

These seven regional and national award recipients, spanning 1954 to 2001, open up a much more complex story of the meaning and significance of the recognition of Indigenous sport. In doing so they reflect an array of tensions including who made the award, the profile it had, the balance of elite performance and community sport participation and development and more. This chapter shows the power of oral histories to craft meaning absent from the official records as well as the importance of voices from below in reshaping the significance of those official records. Not only is it vital to the case as a whole, but its placement at the end enriches the book and grants it an analytical power it might otherwise have lacked. It is probably not the place for it, but I would have liked to see (somewhere) Forsyth reflect on how her place as a TLA winner, although outside the period in question, influenced this analysis and the approach taken.

The other aspect of the analysis that undermines the risk of Whiggishness is the book’s opening. Whereas the closing discussion casts the award in a complex internal light – what it meant to recipients – the opening chapters’ explorations of Longboat-the-athlete and of Indigenous people’s engagements with sport in the emerging Canadian state shows a complex set of external relations and meanings. Much but not all of this discussion turns on Indigenous engagements with sport in the Residential School system – a vital part in the cultural genocide that marked the Canadian settler colonial mission. Here Forsyth points to a much more complex notion of sport, not as the state intended as an imposition of a civilising mission to replace Indigenous ways, but as a space where Indigenous pupils and staff could carve a space of self-control and autonomy, as a place where the state’s assimilationist drive could be recast through sport and physical culture as a site of adaptation, drawing sport into Indigenous ways of being and persistent cultural practices. In doing so, Forsyth then casts the subsequent narrative of the Tom Longboat Award as one of struggle and contested space and meanings, a sense reinforced by the powerful evaluation of the changing ways Longboat himself was seen and remembered after his death in 1949. This question of the contestation of state power, coloniality/modernity and Indigenous agency is woven through the entire analysis granting it power beyond the specific case.

I understand that the book has been widely picked up by Aboriginal sports leaders in Canada, a sign of both its importance and successful efforts to present the material in a way that meets practitioner needs and interests. It is an excellent piece of work that should be read widely, within and beyond its Canadian specific setting, both for its powerful reclamation of an Indigenous past and presence, but also for the way the writing and presentation engages multiple audiences (with full credit to the editors and designers at the University of Regina Press).

This is essential reading for scholars, practitioners and activists in and beyond the lands claimed by Canada, provoking and challenging us to (re)think Indigeneity, sport, empire and coloniality.

Copyright © Malcolm MacLean 2021

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