In 1970, after the intensity of the October Crisis, Pierre Trudeau needed some positive media attention. What did he do? He went to the Grey Cup in Toronto, where he donned his famous black cape and made a dashing impression.
It's hard to overestimate what the Grey Cup means to Canada, and the Trudeau anecdote epitomizes the symbolism and importance of a game celebrating its 100th edition in Toronto on Nov. 25.
Despite the fact it has been taken for granted by some – and it's had its share of ups and downs – there's no denying that the Grey Cup is an indelible piece of Canadian culture. It's also something of a family heirloom.
First, culture: In a 2008 poll for the Historica-Dominion Institute, the Grey Cup was chosen as the seventh most important event in Canadian history. Sandwiched between the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the Olympics, the Grey Cup has clearly engraved itself upon the nation, to borrow a felicitous phrase from the recent TSN television documentaries.
The meaning of the Grey Cup was further explored by former Canadian Football League star Michael (Pinball) Clemons, a U.S. immigrant to Canada and an executive with the Toronto Argonauts, when he spoke to the House of Commons finance committee in 2010: "Nothing brings Canadians together year after year, decade after decade, quite like the Grey Cup. Prime Minister Diefenbaker suggested that it was Canada's greatest unifying force. It is more than a football game, though; it is a cultural phenomenon, one that is distinctly and intensely and proudly ours."
He's right, and the reaction to the centennial of this game is illuminating. The postage stamps, coins and cross-country railway tour of the Grey Cup (including a flight to Iqaluit) are more than just promotional gimmicks. Canadians are participating in a genuine way in a piece of their own history.
Indeed, the Grey Cup is part of our Canadian DNA. It's inextricably tied to those things that define who we are: the weather, trials of war, sparring between East and West, a dislike of Toronto, bilingualism, multiculturalism and anti-Americanism, not to mention ties to Britain and the love of a good, old fashioned party – the Grand National Drunk, in the words of the Dick Beddoes.
"Other, more brutalized nations were knit by civil wars or uprisings against tyrants," Mordecai Richler once wrote, "but Canada, our Canada, was held together by a pigskin."
Underlying the Grey Cup's enduring role as a part of the country's identity is the fact that Lord Grey's venerable mug is a piece of Canadiana that runs through generations of Canadian families. It's a family institution as much as it's a cultural one.
Millions will follow from their homes a game that's annually among the most watched television programs in the country. Where the Super Bowl is a corporate event, the Grey Cup, for the most part, is a fan's game.
And a survey of media outlets collecting memories of the Grey Cup reveals that strong family element. Whether it's a couple who got married after attending the Grey Cup together or stories passed on from generation to generation, the Grey Cup has been a family affair.
So, given the national bloodlines, it's not a huge surprise that the 100th Grey Cup is a big deal. There are some, no doubt, who would snigger at the idea of a mere football game's assuming such a paramount role in the country's history and culture. But sport is culture, and the Grey Cup is the perfect case in point.
J.D.M. Stewart teaches Canadian history at Bishop Strachan School in Toronto.