University sport a fabric of Canada at 150

Team Canada in Almaty, Kazakhstan for the 2017 Winter Universiade Games
Team Canada in Almaty, Kazakhstan for the 2017 Winter Universiade Games

By Christian Ryan, U SPORTS Correspondent 

As Canadians look back on 150 years of their home and native land, they have a great deal to celebrate. Among those proud, celebrated moments have been surrounding milestones and achievements in sport. While reflecting on the moments that have made this country, U SPORTS rings in Canada 150 by reflecting on the moments that shaped university sport in Canada.


The Founding and History of U SPORTS 

University sport in Canada has existed in many forms throughout history. Perhaps the closest tie to our modern U SPORTS was the creation of the Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union (CIAU) Central in 1906. This organization, comprising only of universities in Ontario and Quebec, began to set the standard for organizations across Canada. Organizations would pop up from coast to coast, becoming the de facto leaders of governing bodies of university sports across one or two provinces each. 

Due to tension between organizing bodies across provinces, there was no stability in Canadian university sport. As these organizations were breaking up, the demand for a stable governing body to set proper rules and guidelines for sports, as well as unite the nation in academics and athletics weighed on the nation’s athletics programs. That call was answered by Major W.J. “Danny” McLeod, then the athletic director at the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC), who formed what would officially be known in 1961 as the Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union (CIAU). 

In the 1970s, the Canadian Federal Government began supporting the CIAU as it became the benchmark of promoting and coordinating university sport in Canada at the highest level and allowed university athletics programs to thrive on a national stage. In 2001, the CIAU was rebranded as Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS). This lasted until 2016 when the organization was rebranded to U SPORTS, bringing with it a new and fresh commitment to the promotion and storytelling of Canadian university sports teams and athletes in the digital age. 

Read more: History of U SPORTS

55 Years of U SPORTS National Championships

McMaster Marlins (left-right: Ian Sinclair, captain Butch Hyde, coach Les Prince and Jim Cannon) with University Cup, 1963

With the then-CIAU forming to bring a national standard to university sport in Canada, the doors were opened for programs to compete against one another on a national stage. National playoff systems were introduced to decide which schools would compete for the first U SPORTS national championship. In the 1962-63 academic year, universities across Canada would compete for the first time to decide the nation’s best in basketball and hockey. Assumption College (now affiliated with the University of Windsor) would become the first national champions of basketball, while McMaster University would claim the first national hockey championship.

In the illustrious history of university sport in Canada, the UBC Thunderbirds maintain the distinction of most decorated athletics program in U SPORTS history, with an all-time leading 105 national championships across all sports.

U SPORTS national championships would evolve to have their own identity and national prestige, with names like University Cup (men’s hockey), Final 8 (men’s and women’s basketball), and Vanier Cup (football) becoming cherished events in the Canadian sport lexicon. A national championship becomes part of a university’s pride and psyche, going far beyond the area of play and infiltrating the spirits of all students, faculty, and alumni. For 55 years Canadian universities have been able to lay claim to “the best in Canada,” one year at a time. 


The first U SPORTS Women’s National Championship

 Calgary Dinos, Women's Volleyball 1970 CIAU Champions

We now know U SPORTS women’s national championships as major spectacles on Canada’s biggest university sports stage. The development of organized Canadian women’s university sport saw the beginning of the rise of what we know as U SPORTS today. This evolution began with the first Canadian university women’s national sports championship.

The Women’s Intercollegiate Athletic Union (WIAU) was founded in 1923. Originally, it served as an organizing body for women’s sports in Ontario and Quebec. Similar to the state of men’s university athletics at the time, women’s university athletics were separated by provinces with different governing bodies sanctioning competition between schools based on geographic area with no sense of national competition. A 1969 proposal to the National Committee on Interuniversity Competition would bring about change. 

Canadian women’s university athletes became unified under the Canadian Women’s Intercollegiate Athletic Union (CWIAU). As the various women’s university sports organizing bodies came together to form the CWIAU, the scope of women’s university athletic competition quickly shifted from regional to national. With the formation of women’s national championships at the forefront of the CWIAU’s aspirations, March 1970 would be the landmark date for elite level competition for women. The University of Waterloo hosted the first CWIAU national championship in volleyball, with the University of Calgary becoming the first women’s university sports national champions in Canada.

Vanier Cup Creation and History        

General Georges P. Vanier with the Vanier Cup in 1965

Initially an invitational game between two teams selected by a panel, the winner of the Canadian College Bowl was awarded the Vanier Cup. For the inaugural Bowl in 1965, then-Governor General of Canada, General Georges P. Vanier, gave permission for the trophy to be graced with his name. The 1965 Canadian College Bowl was won by the Toronto Varsity Blues, becoming the first winners of the Vanier Cup. 

In 1967, the Canadian College Bowl ceased to be an invitational event, becoming the official CIAU national championship for Canadian university football. With the new distinction brought to the game as a league title, a playoff series was introduced that would see teams from coast to coast fight for the right to compete for the title in Toronto. The Mitchell Bowl (formerly Churchill Bowl) and Uteck Bowl (formerly Atlantic Bowl) national semifinals, held between conference champions, would become the decider of which two teams faced off in the Vanier Cup. 

The Canadian College Bowl continued until 1982, when it was officially renamed the Vanier Cup. Until 2003, the Vanier Cup title game was held in Toronto at Varsity Stadium, Exhibition Stadium, or the SkyDome (now known as Rogers Centre) Today, title battles can be seen across the country. Most recently, the Laval Rouge et Or won their ninth U SPORTS football title in the 52nd ArcelorMittal Dofasco Vanier Cup at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, Ontario. The 53rd ArcelorMittal Dofasco Vanier Cup will return to Hamilton in November. 

Read more: Vanier Cup History


The Creation and History of the BLG Awards           

The early 1990s were a difficult landscape for Canadian university sports and for Canadian universities as a whole. As schools were facing the need to make financial cutbacks in order to thrive, it would often be the athletics programs that faced the most severe cuts. In 1993, the BLG Awards were established to help preserve and advance university athletics in Canada, as well as support the individual athletes who have made an impact on their respective sports as well as entice athletes to remain in the Canadian university sports system.

Originally known as the Howard Mackie Awards, the now-BLG Awards are partnered with U SPORTS to provide its exceptional athletes reward and support for their balance of academics and athletics. The Canadian Athletic Foundation – an organization with national reach designed to assist in the proper selection and distribution of the award – selects the winners annually. Male and female nominees are put forth by the individual conferences (Canada West Universities Athletic Association, Ontario University Athletics, Réseau du sport étudiant du Québec, and Atlantic University Sport), with the winners chosen from the eight candidates. The award includes a $10,000 post-graduate scholarship and a unique custom fossil-stone trophy, under the stipulations that the athlete has competed at least two years in a U SPORTS-sanctioned sport and are their university’s athlete of the year or runner up.

The individual awards themselves are named for Doug Mitchell and the late Jim Thompson, each of whom played a tremendous role in the Canadian Athletic Foundation, with Mitchell serving as its founder and chairman. 

Read more: About BLG Awards

Related: 25th BLG Awards: Laval’s Roy-Petitclerc, UNB’s Maillet named U SPORTS Athletes of the Year

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