Just over five years ago, Laurence Pontbriand sat at a table with a group of CFL employees in Florida, eager to be brought into the fold.
Pontbriand first made contact with the CFL at the NFL’s Women’s Careers in Football Forum in Orlando, back in 2018. A player — she’s a receiver on Canada’s national team and a member of the national flag football team — and a person with a passion for growing the game, her work ethic was obvious. When the door opened for her at the league office, she burst through it, leaving a job as a physical education teacher behind her.
Five years later, Pontbriand is now the CFL’s senior manager of football and officiating development. She is also this year’s winner of the Jane Mawby Tribute Award, which recognizes a highly valued, yet too often unsung, current employee at the club or league level. She was presented the award last week in Niagara Falls, Ont. at the CFL Awards.
Pontbriand has been at the forefront of the league’s efforts to promote inclusion, diversity, equity and anti-racism. She has helped lead the launch of the Women in Football Program presented by KPMG and the Diversity in Football Program presented by Securian Canada.
With each program having run the last two seasons, 36 total participants have worked with the league’s nine clubs, bringing newfound professional experience back to their communities. Three participants in the programs thus far have been hired as full-time employees with CFL teams.
From that informal roundtable meeting five years ago to the moment she held the award in her hand, Pontbriand was asked if this was what she’d envisioned that day in Orlando, at the start of her time with the CFL.
“Absolutely, no. I see myself as being way too young to win an award,” she said.
“This is the kind of award you win after a long career, I never thought in a million years that I’d be here. I kind of feel like this is me, yes, but this is all the other people that believes that there needs to be change and more specifically…we need to have a vision for everybody. And I think it’s the start.”
“Meaningful change in anything requires time, energy and perseverance, but it also requires a guiding voice. Laurence has been a true champion for change for our league and our great game,” CFL Commissioner Randy Ambrosie said in a statement announcing Pontbriand’s selection to win the Jane Mawby Tribute Award.
“Laurence has shown incredible vision and conviction in advocating for greater diversity and inclusion across the CFL and in our communities. Through her leadership, we have planted these seeds at the heart of our game, and as they grow and flourish, we will see Canadian football continue to become more open and more welcoming to all peoples.”
When Ambrosie had called Pontbriand to inform her of the news a couple of weeks ago, she thought he wanted information on the recently completed Eastern Semi-Final playoff game. “Then he started to say, ‘We’re proud of you and your work,'” she recalled. “I knew this was something else.”
Sounding every bit a leader, she said when she got on the stage to accept the award, she thought of all of the people she’s met and worked with over the years to make the game more accessible to people.
“I really think that this is the work of all the people that are invested in this,” she said.
“Obviously you’re not the only one to start that program. Maybe I came up with the idea but there are a lot of people who need to believe in the idea and then execute it, I think this is just proof that change needs to be done and we’re getting there and the change is welcome by everybody. That’s what goes through my mind.”
Five years in, Pontbriand is constantly looking to the future. She’d love to create and run a department for the development of inclusivity in amateur football, noting that it’s the kind of idea that requires some significant financial support.
The recent addition of flag football to the 2028 Olympics could provide that segue. With the sport fully open to men and women and with its operating costs relatively simple and efficient, there is plenty of room for the game to grow and become available to a broad spectrum of the population in the coming years.
“I actually have an idea for flag,” Pontbriand said. “What I’d like to do is partner with Football Canada and the provincial sports organizations and have a combine run by the CFL in every single province. It would serve as a selection process for the national flag teams.”
She’d like to amplify that national team program with content series’ in every province to help the game gain ground across the country.
“I think we can make it really big and really fun, exciting. We can do that every year leading up to 2028. I think that would be absolutely awesome,” she said.
Ambrosie certainly appreciates the work that Pontbriand has put in. Just five years into her time with the league, she has already helped it take positive steps toward growth.
“We hear the phrase ‘Grow the Game’ in every sport, but too often, it’s rare to see it in action,” Ambrosie said.
“We’re by no means where we want to be in terms of diversity and inclusion; there’s still so much work to be done, but Laurence has led the charge and we’re seeing her efforts create real and positive change. The league and Canadian football as a whole are better for it and we’ll continue to make strides down this path.”