Come for the history of the Toronto Argonauts and the Canadian Football League, stay for insights on how the game affects and reflects Canadian culture and identity.

That’s not how history professor James Fraser sells his course to University of Guelph students, but the realization hits all of them at some point in the semester.
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It certainly struck Fraser, as he turned a lifelong football hobby into an academic pursuit in the past couple of years.

“I needed to have my own eyes opened to it as time went on. Even putting the course together, I began to realize the different ways in which what I was doing wasn’t just giving the students an opportunity to learn about Canadian football, I was really talking about Canada in all sorts of different ways,” he said Friday.

“I began to think about how some of the big questions and issues that affect Canadian football and the CFL in particular are potentially bigger issues than just the CFL, about Canadian industry and culture and how that’s going these days.

“I was thinking about some of the things people talk about in relation to attendance issues and does that have to do with Canadian demographics shifting and immigration and all that kind of stuff sort of rolling around in my head. I thought this is starting to sound like quite an interesting history course.”

He developed An Invitation to History as a series of seminars focused first on the legitimacy of sports history as a field of study, and then on the specific history of Canadian football and its relevance in the country, which is a personal passion. The course is mandatory for all history minors and majors at Guelph.

They tackle subjects like Lionel Conacher and the state of Canadian football in 1922; Cultural Imperialism and Canadian football; From Big League to Big Business; Canadian football in the 1950s.

Fraser is a rabid fan of the Argonauts, a team he started watching as a kid more than four decades ago. He’s the man behind the Twitter handle @BygoneBoatmen, which celebrates the team’s rich history a day at a time. He believes the game, the league and his favourite franchise have long played an important role in Canadian culture, and that all of them ought to be protected and celebrated. So he’s doing his part to keep the CFL and the oft-maligned, occasionally ignored Argos in the conversation.

“It’s hard to be optimistic, and yet it’s hard to ignore the fact that the Argos have been declared dead since sometime in the late 1970s and yet I’ve lived almost 50 years since then as an Argos fan and they’re still here. It defies logic and belief sometimes,” he said.

Fraser doesn’t claim to know how to raise the Argos’ profile in Toronto, he surely doesn’t know if an historian should ever be asked to provide an answer in fact, but history is his platform and he’s using it.

“I guess part of where I’m going in my own head, separate from the course, is I keep trying to work out whether or not I can develop an opinion or a sense of what might be going on and what might help to make things better as far as the CFL’s profile in Toronto is concerned. Most people would think it’s a business issue or a marketing issue, that it’s various other things to do with social policy, and nobody would think a historian would know the answer.

“That’s where “my powers” lie, in quotation marks, and I want to use my powers for good. I’m interested in the league. I want it to succeed. I have certain skills and those skills may or may not have the ability to influence things, to move the needle.”

He has 994 followers on Twitter, so that’s a start. His class has been capped at 30 students, and is full for the second consecutive year. It’s an intentional move to provide a more intimate environment for first-year history students who are otherwise part of massive classes of perhaps 300 or more.

He has made course revisions from the first year to second and it will continue to evolve. He has led all the seminars to date, but may well invite football experts and insiders like Football Canada president Jim Mullin to address the class next year.

“The good news is the course seems to work, the kids seem to like it and it seems to be doing what I hoped it would do,” said Fraser.

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