In July, 1867, the month of the country's birth, Paris staged a world's fair that attracted millions of visitors and exhibits from 42 states. A feature event at the exposition was the international rowing championship. Saint John sent a team, four men viewed as yokels by the Europeans and expected to finish last. "Strange looking people," wrote the Manchester Guardian.
In a heavy, old-fashioned outrigger, the Canadians stunned the world of rowing, then in its golden age. They blew by the overdog British and French crews, winning the regatta with ease. The event gave New Brunswickers an immediate proud place in the country. Abroad it captured more publicity than Confederation itself. Canada was on the map.
You won't find that story in our history books. Historians write 500-page tomes which, aside from the obligatory nod to hockey as being important to the Canadian identity, barely mention sport. They view it as a sideshow. They see sport as only sport, not for its wider social impact, not for its role, a foremost one, in the building and binding of the country.
It's a gaping hole in the writing of our history. The Canadian unity story, for example, has been told chiefly in the context of politics – language disputes, provincial frictions, political speeches. But how can that story be written without focus on the allegiance won by our achievements on the playing fields: the Vancouver Olympics gold medal hockey victory watched by 16 million; the nationalism ignited by the 1972 hockey series; the patriotism instilled by Toronto's World Series triumphs; Terry Fox's marathon of hope; the exploits of our Olympians; or the greatness of the likes of Howe and Béliveau?
Politicians speak of the importance of national programs. What has stirred more loyalty than the national program that is the Canadian Football League with its Grey Cup game?
Marshall McLuhan once wrote an article entitled "Baseball is Culture." Those attending so-called "plebeian sports" were just as cultural he contended – is not a baseball pitcher's art as impressive as a cellist's? – as symphony goers. Next to their jobs, Canadians probably spend more time on sport – watching sport broadcasts, playing sports, attending sports, discussing sports – than anything else. Sports took over one of our days of the week, the one that once belonged to religion. If sport is culture, it is our arguably dominant culture.
In our early history, sport empowered the working class and helped bring down class barriers. In stamping out an identity for this country separate from Britain and the United States, the role of sport was vital. The Brits tried to nurture an elitist sporting culture with sports such as cricket, rugby, soccer. As separate from both the Americans and the British, we opted for our own brand of football, our own sport of hockey, our own sport of lacrosse.
Any story on the empowerment of women in Canada need reserve a special place for sport. Victorian attitudes toward women were shattered by the talent shown by our women in basketball by the Edmonton Grads team, in track and field by our women's captivating performance at the 1928 Olympic Games and in swimming with the conquest by Marilyn Bell of Lake Ontario.
What little recognition and pride our repressed aboriginal peoples received came through their sport of lacrosse. In the West, what knit communities together, what brought much prairie pride was curling. In what was called English Canada, what stirred admiration and respect for Quebec was the brilliance of the Montreal Canadiens. In the Cold War, sport was our army. For our youth especially, but for us all, what greater sources of excitement, escape, inspiration are there?
Of course, there's a great many downsides – the excesses, the money, the drugs, the injuries – to our sporting obsession. That narrative also gets shortchanged owing to our compartmentalized, sideshow treatment of sport.
As Canada's 150th anniversary approaches, we should get our history right. Sport isn't the toy department. It isn't, as historians treat it, an afterthought. Sport transcends sport. It is at the core of the Canadian story, our tie that binds.