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 – November 15, 2012.
Canada would witness history being made before its very eyes in November of 1981 not once, but twice.
The Edmonton Eskimos began their march towards the 69th Grey Cup in hopes of breaking a 25-year-old record to win a fourth consecutive title, a record the team already shared with the post-War Toronto Argonauts.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Pierre Trudeau’s federal government was furiously trying to hammer down the details on a landmark win of its own – the patriation of Canada’s first Constitution.
In an effort to include voices from across the country, Trudeau gathered the 10 premiers together in Ottawa to broker a deal.
The two events would forever become linked at a time of great struggle and success for Alberta.
The Eskimos were the toast of the Canadian Football League: three-time defending Champions playing in a brand-new Commonwealth Stadium.
They marched through the ’81 season with an impeccable 14-1-1 record. Their opposition in the Grey Cup would be the 5-11 Ottawa Rough Riders.
The rise of the Eskimos came at a crucial time for Alberta, which was mired in frustration and economic strife after Trudeau’s controversial National Energy Program greatly stressed the province’s oil and gas industries.
In an effort to alleviate economic stresses brought on by escalating global oil and gas prices as well as sky-high interest rates, the Program was designed to use the oil and gas from Alberta at discounted rates to the rest of the country, thereby lessening the country’s dependence on foreign energy.
For Alberta, however, it meant selling resources well below the going rate, stretching the industry to its very financial limits.
Alberta’s battle for supremacy on the field as well as control of its own resources is profiled in “Western Swagger,” Barry Greenwald’s contribution to TSN’s Engraved on a Nation documentary series.
In the end, the Eskimos would overcome a staggering 20-1 half-time deficit and top the Rough Riders with a last-second field goal while Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed would prove instrumental in reaching an agreement that would lay the foundation for the Canadian Constitution.
A Genie and Gemini Award-nominated filmmaker, Greenwald recalls that while the story was eventually one of success for both the Eskimos and Albertans, positive outcomes for both were never guaranteed.
“No one expected what was going to happen in that game,” Greenwald said. “That parallel between the two is more than serendipity. That’s at the core of the drama of this documentary.”
Alberta would find a way to regain its swagger in the face of adversity in both arenas: on the field and in Ottawa.
After Lougheed commented that the federal government had “without negotiation, without agreement, simply walked into our home and occupied the living room,” in a televised address he led the charge in getting 11 leaders together to try to build consensus.
“The premier kind of gave us this vision so Albertans felt that we had something to offer the rest of the country,” Oryssia Lennie – one of Lougheed’s Alberta government colleagues – said in the film. “We were feeling confident in ourselves, we were feeling strong. That came crashing down a bit after the National Energy Program. But I think we were still feisty.”
Greenwald believed Alberta’s ability to emerge from the crisis – and some difficult years as a result of the National Energy Program – stronger than ever speaks both to the character of its residents and its leader.
“They stuck together as a family, too, represented by a pretty remarkable statesman,” Greenwald said.
Greenwald, in turn, would lean on his own filmmaking team – including producers Don Metz and Michael Bobroff and editor Doug Forbes – to turn the documentary around from shooting to finished product in just over three months.
As for the Eskimos, the familial bond off the field is part of what made the on-field product such a dominant force.
“I realized that this film in a larger way is about family,” Greenwald said. “It’s about how the Edmonton Eskimos – and I think part of the magic that made them so special – had an almost “Camelot”-type experience.”
“Their relationships and bonds both on the field and off the field created that powerhouse [they were] in that period of time.”
The legacy of the National Energy Program would – like the CFL – result in a division of East and West.
Greenwald spoke of the frustration of Albertans at the time:
“When you look at the past and when you look at what happened in Alberta in the 1980s – and it wasn’t just 1981, it got worse in ’82, ’83 and ’84 – [there was] resentment of being told, perhaps you can not be masters of your own home.”
Despite the hard feelings, though, Canada came together in the end with the crucial help of Alberta.
“You just keep playing,” Greenwald said. “Whether you were an Edmonton Eskimo or you were Premier Lougheed or you were Prime Minister Trudeau or any of us.”
“The Eskimos were able to stick to that theme and we, as Canadians, with some real statesmen were able to keep playing and stay close. And in that respect, we all won.”
The fact that both events – the foundation for the landmark Constitution and Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Eskimos setting a standing record for consecutive Grey Cups – came within a month of each other, is just another example of how the CFL’s biggest games come when the country needs them the most.
“The Grey Cup is a national game, Greenwald said. “Very much [it] is a unifying force, too, in the tradition of the Canadian Football League.”