February 27, 2024

DIS Conversations: Celebrating Black Excellence In Canadian Sport

The Canadian Press

TORONTO — Jon Cornish described what may be one of the most quintessentially Canadian football moments we’ll ever have.

The legendary former Calgary Stampeders running back recalled the moment he won the Northern Star Award in 2013 as Canada’s top athlete. He was presented the award by another Canadian football legend, the late George Reed. Cornish and Reed’s daughter, Georgette — a decorated Canadian athlete herself — joined host Donnovan Bennett for the latest edition of the Diversity Is Strength Conversations series, which honours Black Excellence in Canadian sport.

After being presented the 2013 CFL Most Outstanding Player Award just a couple of weeks prior by Russ Jackson, Cornish felt the significance of having George Reed present him an award that hadn’t been in a CFL players’ hands in 44 years at that point (Jackson was the last Northern Star winner before Cornish, in 1969.

“I understood at that point my role in the CFL,” Cornish said.

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“It’s not just trying to be the best. It’s trying to follow in a person like George’s footsteps. It’s trying to follow in Russ’ footsteps as not just being a great player but trying to leave a mark on the game, a positive mark. Then after that, elevating the game as much as you can.”

After George Reed’s passing on Oct. 1, 2023, the CFL made him the namesake of its Most Outstanding Player award.

Georgette received firsthand the lessons and inspiration that her father demonstrated to Regina, Saskatchewan and the rest of Canada through his 13-year CFL career and through the 83 years of his life. That’s shone through in her own athletic career. She represented Canada in the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona in the shot put and competed internationally in the discus. She spent 14 years as a competitive swimmer as a child in Regina and as she revealed on the podcast, recreationally became a hockey goalie as an adult.

After a successful decade-long coaching track and field at the University of Alberta, Georgette is now the director of athletics and recreation at Capilano University in North Vancouver.

“Watching him throughout his career kind of paved the way for many athletes and definitely kind of opened up a door for me,” she said of her father’s influence.

“It also told me that doors may be open for you but it’s what you do that gets you through the door and keeps you behind the door. So I spent a lot of time looking at not only what’s possible in a sporting realm, but also what was possible in community and society and how being good at one thing is not necessarily success; being good at many things where you’re able to help support and inspire and reach back and help others is the key.”

Bennett, Reed and Cornish cover a lot of ground in their almost hour-long conversation. While George Reed is celebrated, as both Georgette and Cornish have been in their respective careers, there have still been racially-motivated obstacles in their paths. Georgette recalls the difficulty her father had renting an apartment in his early days in Regina and the occasional family that didn’t want to billet her when she was swimming as a child.

Cornish tells an alarming (but unfortunately too familiar) story of having a woman chase after him and his wife, angrily telling them he doesn’t belong in her neighbourhood.

Progress can feel like it moves at a glacial pace but both Cornish and Reed see positives in the present and are optimistic about the future.

“The world needs to understand that diversity will happen. And if you’re fighting against it, you’re on the wrong side of history.”
Jon Cornish

“I’ve always thought that sport is a great place, it’s a great equalizer,” Reed said.

“It’s a great place for people who are new to a community. It’s a way for them to be able to assimilate in and be accepted. That’s why I love community centres and open opportunities with low barriers for kids to learn all kinds of sport and being able to just see what it’s all about.

“Things like KidSport and all these all these organizations that have free equipment or inexpensive equipment, so that some kid can learn how to play hockey, which is a very expensive sport. To be able to give those opportunities and to share that information and to open up people’s eyes to things that they may not have seen or that they would have judged differently, I think is a start.

“I think that we have to stop walking around with blinders on and thinking that it’s not about us or they’re not like us and whatever and all kind of walking nakedly into the world and to say, ‘OK, this is who I am. Who are you? What do you do? Can we do stuff together? Or do we not?’ And go from there.”

Cornish is buoyed by the idea of his generation — one that came up seeing Black people find success and places in the world that they hadn’t in generations past — being the one to set the tone for the future.

“Calgary is the third most diverse city in Canada, quickly approaching the same level as Toronto and Vancouver,” Cornish said.

“These kids currently are in a diverse world. Their world, when they enter the business world, the real world, they’re going to see that there’s sort of a lack of diversity.

“Then there’s our generation, the people here, breaking those barriers we’re that first group. So when we go into a space, a boardroom, for example, or a teaching conference typically we are the only people of colour in those spaces. But because we’re there, we can keep on building up. I think that’s the most important piece is that the world needs to understand that diversity will happen. And if you’re fighting against it, you’re on the wrong side of history.

“If you are in the place where there is no diversity, you have to understand that the responsibility is on you. That’s important for our children to know and for the next generation to understand is that you know, sometimes you are that that glass breaker, you are the person that’s going to change the game.”

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