Showing Prairie Pride in the GTA
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Showing Prairie Pride in the GTA

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Photo by Flickr user captiveight from her Rider Nation album.
One of Toronto’s invisible expatriate communities will emerge this evening for a sporting event and cultural celebration rolled into one. While other immigrant communities can anchor themselves in cultural festivals, community groups, or neighbourhoods, ex-Saskatchewanians have a football team: the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders. The team squares off tonight against the Toronto Argonauts at the Rogers Centre. The Riders are coming off a string of recent successes. The injury-depleted Argos, on the other hand, are struggling with a carousel at quarterback. But tonight’s game action is arguably less interesting than what’s going on in the stands.


For the uninitiated, attending a Riders game can be a strange experience. There’ll seem to be as many manic green-clad fans as there are people dressed in the home team’s double blue. The Rider Nation, as they aptly call themselves, don’t just show up to games to watch; this is fandom at its most participatory. If you’re from Saskatchewan, everyone around you has got to know you are. In the one-upmanship of improvised costumes, whom of the shirtless, green-wigged, face-painted, green-cape-wearing throng can show their pride the loudest? Saskatchewan fans can become instant friends, whether transplanted to Ontario ten years or ten days ago. There’s no question that if you’re dressed in green, you’ll be giving high-fives to strangers with hollowed-out watermelons on their heads. It can be surreal but, if you’re from the Battlefords, also comforting.
Ridercc3.jpgWhat makes Saskatchewan fans so different? The team has never exactly been a powerhouse: in existence since 1910, the Roughriders have
exactly two Grey Cups, and since that last Grey Cup win in 1989, the Riders have had a grand total of three over .500 winning seasons.
Winning, though euphoric, is kinda beside the point for Rider fans. It’s more about showing up and celebrating cultural roots. This is why away games are so important for fans of the team. In some ways, the Riders have mirrored the fortunes of the province itself: always on the cusp of prosperity, but never quite turning into a “have” province. Lean years simply give rise to a fatalistic hopefulness in next season and an optimism that the impossible just might happen.
Tonight’s game will reveal some quirks of Canadian patterns of inter-provincial migration. While some fans undoubtedly follow the team from city to city as a loud, boisterous foreign delegation, the majority of the abundant Rider fans who’ll be crowding the stadium concourses and waving flags are locals, transplanted from the prairie to new homes in “have” destinations like Toronto.
The province of Saskatchewan has long suffered the joke that the province’s most valuable export is its young people. Over the past thirty years, Saskatchewan has seen a consistent out-flow of migrants, leaving tens of thousands (or more) ex-Saskatchewanians scattered across the country. For those living abroad (so to speak), the football team becomes a way to remain emotionally connected to the fortunes of the province. When the Riders come to town, it becomes an annual homecoming party for ex-Saskatchewanians without their ever needing to travel back to Moose Jaw, Saskatoon or the Battlefords. For ex-Saskatchewanians, Rider Pride transcends mere sport to become cultural celebration. For those on the outside, tonight’s game acts as an intriguing reminder that not all Toronto’s immigrant communities come from overseas.
Photo by Flickr user captiveight from her Rider Nation album.

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