George Armstrong: A Unifying Hero

George Armstrong: A Unifying Hero

George Armstrong, beloved former captain of the Maple Leafs, personified the complicated history of Canada. Being of Indigenous and Irish-Canadian descent, he grew up aware of two distinct realities. Armstrong was not subjected to the residential school system directly, but members of his family were were. "George saw the impact [his cousins] would have went through because [he was] living at [their] house during the summer when they weren't in residential school," says relative and Cambrian College professor Ghislaine Goudreau. "And so even though he didn't grow up with a lot of the culture, he saw the impacts of that. And I think it affected him a lot."

At the same time, Armstrong had the same dream as many Canadian children: to wear the Leafs' emblem on his chest. He worked his way through the ranks and joined the organization for the 1950-51 season. Armstrong was a regular for the Leafs by '53, and by '57 he was captain, a position he would hold for 13 seasons. While still subjected to "casual" racism – being nicknamed "Chief" by fellow players, the media, and fans, for example – Armstrong’s abilities on the ice, and his mixed heritage, allowed for a level of respect and tolerance that much of his Indigenous family did not receive.

Armstrong, because his lived experience was unique, found himself caught between two worlds, and therefore did not feel comfortable being known as a spokesperson for his people. But in captaining a team as legendary as the Maple Leafs, he inadvertently did a great deal for many Indigenous Canadians. "He was the captain of the last Leafs team to win the Stanley Cup," says Waubgeshig Rice, writer and journalist and member of Wausauksing First Nation. "He’s immortalized in hockey history in so many ways; to know that even as a young kid was really awesome, and it was a major point of pride as a hockey player, fan, and Anishinaabe person."

And so, this Canada Day, we celebrate George Armstrong’s great achievements, but also sit with the pain and loss he and his family endured. We acknowledge this country’s difficult past and present, while also looking forward to a more unified future, something Armstrong himself, through his actions, worked towards.

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