The CFL’s Amateur Officiating Diversity and Inclusion Committee is on a mission, and that mission is spelled out right in its name; to ensure that avenues toward becoming an official in Canada, right up to the pro level, are open to absolutely everyone.
“We want to target grassroots, amateur officiating,” says Laurence Pontbriand, the CFL’s manager, football and officiating development.
“Because that’s where it starts.”
Organized a little over a year ago, the committee — chaired by former CFL official Henry Chiu — has been discussing the state of amateur officiating in Canada, and forming action plans on how to increase diversity and inclusion across the board, building a pathway from entry level officiating, all the way to the Canadian Football League.
“We are still in the construction phase,” says Pontbriand, but we’re definitely trying to build something.”
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For Darren Hackwood, the CFL’s associate vice-president, officiating, it has become obvious that the pipeline has been clogged somewhere along the way when it comes to diverse candidates, stopping them short of becoming officials in Canadian university football, the primary feeder link to the CFL. In 2019, the league saw its first-ever female officials work a pre-season game in Calgary. Emily Clarke and Georgina Paull made history that night and continue to work toward becoming full-time CFL refs, but their respective climbs wouldn’t be the be-all/end-all to this issue.
“We’re not getting the diverse candidates to hire,” Hackwood says, “because we are not seeing good representation within elite level football.”
For years, Hackwood says, lamentably, the lack of diversity in professional candidates had been institutionally met with a bit of a shrug. But that’s no longer the case.
“It’s always been, ‘Maybe that’s not our problem; maybe that’s somebody else’s problem,’” he explains. “We started to think (that if) we want to be leaders in football and in officiating, then this has got to be our problem, too, to help solve.”
Among those helping to solve the problem is committee member Eric Gyebi, a native of Philadelphia whose family came to Canada when he was seven, settling in the Greater Toronto Area.
Now 32, Gyebi is an active official, entering his 10th season in stripes, having started out with the Lakeshore Football Association, based in Burlington, Ontario. Gyebi has also been an OUA official since 2018, having made it to a position where he is just one rung below the CFL.
He wants to take that final step into pro football, and he wants to assist other people of colour in getting into and progressing towards the top levels of officiating. He can see no better way than to be a visible example that others can look to as he actively takes part in recruiting for the Lakeshore Football Officials Association.
Gyebi can, he says, “ensure that people notice that there are Blacks in officiating, right? It’s not just what you see on TV.”
“It’s gone well,” says Gyebi of the committee. “I’m happy with the progress of it,” he adds, as he looks forward to the imminent enacting of some of the committee’s suggestions in programs that are on the horizon.
“Anyone can actually get there with, basically, hard work,” says Gyebi of the goal of ensuring all interested candidates have the same smooth avenue to tread. “That’s my mindset and that’s what I want to be sure that people understand, as well.”
Former amateur official Karen Madill is on the committee as well, weighing in from her home in Maple Ridge, BC.
Madill is currently on the executive of the British Columbia Football Officials Association, and enjoyed a 17-year career as an on-field official that began in Medicine Hat, Alta. in 2001.
Retiring after being on the crew for the 2017 World Women’s Tackle Football Championship, Madill’s career saw her act as line judge and umpire, sometimes making the three-hour drive from Medicine Hat to Calgary in order to work as many games as she could.
“I had to find my way,” she says, declaring that one of the things she’d like to see in Canadian officiating is a more standardized way of assessing candidates from province to province. “And I was lucky to find the people that would support me and believe in me.”
Naturally, Madill would like to see more females involved in officiating.
“Now that I’m off the field, we only have one female official, in BC for tackle football,” she says. And she’s determined that the Amateur Officiating Diversity and Inclusion Committee will make big strides in the near future so that “it’s not a matter of your gender, your race, your religion, or anything else. It’s a matter that those avenues are attainable and inclusive across Canada.”
Madill, who got involved in officiating by making the jump from being a spectator, knows that there is now a pool of female candidates who will come from already being directly involved in the game.
“Nowadays, you have female players coming in, saying ‘I’ll officiate, I will coach, I will get involved some other way,’” she says.
Pontbriand is an example of an ex-player transitioning into a different football role. As a star receiver, she was named Canada’s MVP at the 2017 world championships, joining the CFL as Coordinator of Football Operations a year later. She believes that the Amateur Officiating Diversity and Inclusion Committee can have a real effect on changing the face of officiating in Canada.
The candidates are there, at the grassroots level, she says.
“I know a lot of female flag football officials,” says Pontbriand. “We do have some kind of diversity in flag football. And flag football here in Quebec is really, really big.”
Hackwood sees the process of reaching a place where the pro ranks are more diverse as taking some time, pointing out that it can be a good five or six years before a good official makes it to the elite level. But he is determined as well.
“We’ve really got to fix this throughout football and it starts with grassroots,” he says, adding that the CFL will become more and more involved with assessing candidates as they advance.
“We’re gonna go talk to the amateur officials ourselves and make sure that they’re being evaluated in an equitable fashion,” he says.
As well, Hackwood says that the national governing body of tackle, touch, and flag football — known as Football Canada — is developing its own diversity and inclusion initiatives and that the CFL will be very supportive of those programs.
These programs will, by no means, amount to a sort of easy-pass kind of path towards a career in the CFL.
Both Madill and Gyebi agree on all candidates being subjected to a level playing field, so long as they share the very important traits of wanting to be a top-flight official, displaying a good work ethic and a dedication to excellence.
“I see it as an open mindset where it’s about the work you put into it,” Gyebi says. “You’ll be rewarded based on that.”
“I wasn’t there to prove a point,” says Madill of her officiating career. “I was there because I wanted to be an official.”
There are, no doubt, countless dreamers out there who have the same kind of passion that Karen Madill has always had, the kind that Eric Gyebi has as well.
The CFL is now taking steps to ensure they all get the same, equitable opportunities to turn their passion into a dream fulfilled.
WANT TO BE AN OFFICIAL? NO TIME LIKE THE PRESENT
If football organizations across Canada are anything like the Lakeshore Football Officials Association, they’re in a recruiting drive right now.
Gyebi says that he and the referee-in-chief of the LFOA, former OUA referee Murray Drinkwalter, are making a push for new blood for the upcoming season, and you can get more information from their website, LFOA.ca.
“This is a great way for you to get involved,” says Gyebi. “If your aspirations are to move up to the (U SPORTS) or CFL level, just work on your craft and you can get there.”
As for his own future as an official, Gyebi makes it crystal clear that he is eyeing a job in the ranks of CFL officials. “One hundred per cent,” he says.
Gyebi might actually have been ready to make his CFL debut this season, had the pandemic not come along to cancel last year’s OUA campaign.
“I think one more year,” Gyebi says of officiating university football.
“I think I need that one year to sort of get my game back to, basically, where it should be. (This season) is crucial for me in terms of getting back up to speed.”
“It comes down to me,” he says. “It’s the work I’m going to put into it. I think it will show. You get noticed that way.”