To celebrate the 100th Grey Cup, TSN presents ‘Engraved on a Nation,’ a series of documentaries highlighting eight indelible moments in the history of the CFL’s ultimate prize. TSN.ca producer Shane McNeil presents a feature story on how each of these stories was brought to the screen.
Originally published on TSN.ca – October 26, 2012.
The 57th Grey Cup had all the ear-marks of a Classic before the game even kicked off.
For the first time in 38 years, the game was to be hosted in Montreal and the city in 1969 was arguably at its cultural zenith. The city was still basking in the international glory that had come with the smashing success of hosting Expo ’67.
New venues and attractions such as the Autostade – a venue built for Expo that would host the game – made the city a tourist beacon.
Mayor Jean Drapeau was ushering the city onto the International stage in the wake of Expo with an Olympic campaign that would prove successful the next year. The Expos became Major League Baseball’s first Canadian franchise in April of that year. The Canadiens were back-to-back Stanley Cup champions and just one year prior one of the city’s own – Pierre Trudeau – had been elected Prime Minister of Canada.
The game also featured two of the game’s all-time great quarterback’s going toe-to-toe: Ottawa Rough Riders legend Russ Jackson and his counterpart from the Saskatchewan Roughriders, Ron Lancaster.
However, amidst all these activities and highlights, it also marked the bloodiest and most extensive summer of bombings for the Front de Liberation du Quebec, a paramilitary group bent on achieving Quebec sovereignty by any means necessary.
The prospect of a national event on the scale of a Grey Cup in such an unpredictable political climate was a challenge to all involved with the game and that challenge is the subject of John Walker’s contribution to the Engraved on a Nation series: “Playing a Dangerous Game.”
Walker was reached for this story in the hamlet of Pangnirtung in Nunavut: an area with approximately 1,325 people situated on a fjord inlet on Baffin Island. There he was filming with the Canadian Rangers filming a documentary about defending Canada’s arctic sovereignty and the political Inuit movement.
The fight for sovereignty is one that runs as a current through “Playing a Dangerous Game” as well.
He points to then – Canadian Football League Commissioner Jake Gaudaur’s efforts to keep the league as a unified organization with a thriving interest from the province of Quebec as a major reason for the league’s decision to put the game, and – more importantly – keep the game in Montreal despite the FLQ’s presence on the city’s streets.
“Gaudaur had the right idea,” Walker – a Genie and Gemini Award-winning filmmaker – said. “If you want Francophones to enjoy the game, you have to speak in both languages, it has to become part of the culture. It has become part of the culture in Quebec and the Francophone element and speaking French and having Quebec players is part of that game.”
Keeping Quebec involved was a prime objective in 1969, not just for Gaudaur and the CFL, but for Trudeau and the Federal government as well. The importance of such a national event like the Grey Cup in a city like Montreal was not lost on either man.
Walker sees “Playing a Dangerous Game” as a metaphor for the unity both men were seeking in 1969.
“You have Trudeau on the one hand wanting to keep Quebec within Canada and keep Canada together and you had Jake Gaudaur on the other hand wanting to keep the Alouettes as part of the CFL – a national organization – together, so they were both kind of on the same path coming at it from different points of view,” he said.
But keeping the players safe and keeping the event from being an obvious symbolic target was no easy feat for either man.
Enter Bob Cote.
Robert (Bob) Cote was the head of the Montreal Police’s anti-bomb squad, and throughout the summer of 1969 he was charged with diffusing bombs and with them, political tension across the city.
He described the shift in popular opinion towards the FLQ in the film after the group claimed its first human casualty with a bomb in 1963: “Until that day the FLQ were considered more or less as Robin Hoods,” Cote said of the group prior to its first fatality in 1963. “From that day, the FLQ lost its support. It had blood on its hands.”
Walker looks to Cote’s involvement as one of the great storylines from the 57th Grey Cup. Cote was a man who volunteered for the bomb squad and despite eventually being awarded the Order of Canada was a man who didn’t get much time in the spotlight.
Walker describes the game as pivotal for two stars from very different playing fields.
“Obviously, Russ Jackson is very well known,” Walker said. “But the other player – on the streets of Montreal, the unsung hero – was Bob Cote. What he was going through to save people’s lives at the time was unsung.”
“We’re looking at two different kinds of superstars.”
In the end, the game would go through without incident and the lasting legacy of the gesture remains to this day in both the CFL and the political climate of the Nation.
“I think slowly Francophone Quebeckers saw that there was an effort being made to make the game more bilingual,” Walker said. “I think it took a while to gain traction in Quebec to realize that it’s not going to happen overnight.”
And, in truth, it did not happen overnight. The CFL would inevitably lose Montreal as a franchise from 1987 through 1995. But the team would be resurrected and has since become one of the league’s model franchises.
“Gaudaur made sure in 1969 that it was a bilingual event and it took a while to gain some traction and it also took the team a while to get successful again,” Walker said. “They had their bad years and, like any city, if the team’s not doing well it becomes hard to drum up interest. But, once the team starts to win, the fans come flocking.”
In terms of the effort, Walker jokes that perhaps the CFL got the better of the unity experiment.
“I think maybe Jake Gaudaur was more successful than Trudeau.”
But what has been achieved through the gesture of inclusion has been the establishment of Quebec as a hotbed for football in Canada on every level.
“Some of the best players in the league are coming out of Quebec now,” Walker said. “The universities and CEGEPs and colleges in Quebec are really big on
football and are really supporting it, it’s probably bigger than hockey right now in terms of the university leagues, so they’ve really embraced the game. I would say it’s pretty secure situation for football in Quebec.”
The end result of Gaudaur’s vision then – with football thriving in Quebec on several levels has been one of success.
However, when the players took the field at the Autostade on November 30, 1969 neither success nor safety were guaranteed.