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O’Leary: Edmonton welcomes a new day with Elks name

If there’s one thing you can count on, it’s the unpredictability of people.

The Edmonton Elks unveiled themselves to the CFL and the world on Tuesday and after years of watching the name change debate unfold on social media, I’ll admit that I was on the nervous side as the clock ticked down to the team’s announcement.

When the moment arrived it largely felt like the battle portion of this story had ended.

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Maybe it was the quality of that very well-put-together video. Maybe people were fully won over when they saw an Elks helmet that’s so perfectly gorgeous it can spend off-seasons on display at the Art Gallery of Alberta. Maybe, after years of debate, of bickering and a tinge of our world growing up a little, we’ve moved past this conversation. Tuesday’s announcement felt like the start of a new era in Edmonton. It’s undoubtedly what the organization was hoping for, but it was far from a given that they’d get it. With people, you never know.

“When I look back, I’m honoured,” Elks president and CEO Chris Presson said of the end result of a process that began before he took on the job in 2019.

“When you look at the history of the Edmonton football team and the CFL itself, there’s a lot there to see and to know that you’re a part of that and that you have a chance to make an impact like this, it’s pretty special.”

Presson spoke wearing an orange ribbon on the lapel of his suit jacket, a stark reminder of the horrible discovery this past week of the bodies of 215 children in a mass grave at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, BC. On the first day of National Indigenous History Month and in the wake of a harsh reminder of this country’s tragically flawed history with its Indigenous people, the name change felt like a small step in the right direction.

“We definitely did the right thing,” Presson said of the name change.

The Elks logo is prominently displayed on the field at Commonwealth Stadium (Photo: Edmonton Elks)

Presson noted that through the name change process, the organization has built a relationship with Indigenous communities in Alberta and in the north. He wants those to continue and to grow. The Kamloops discovery reinforces the need for that, not just from the sports world but from people across the country. Like many of us, Presson said he’s struggled to wrap his head around the gravity of Canada’s history with residential schools.

“Just recognition around what we’ve all learned and the issues that are behind it and finding a way to get better. Finding a way to show respect and to bring people together, not tear them apart,” Presson said.

“To think about my own family and the fact that having three daughters of my own, somebody could come in at that time and take them…man, I don’t know how people deal with that. I really don’t,” he said. “Obviously, it’s challenging to talk about.”

You can’t undo the past, as dark and troubling as it can be. You can only acknowledge it and try to move forward. It’s a small brushstroke on a large canvas, but Edmonton made theirs on Tuesday.

“It was needed,” Presson said. “It was probably a few years overdue to be honest but I’m glad with where we are now and no doubt we made the right decision.”

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