Origins and Connection to Sport

Origins & Connections to Sport

You win the French National Cup of Soccer with Olympique de Marseille in the 1920s and become one of your country’s first professional soccer players. You are convinced that sports and physical fitness are critical for a long and healthy life. You practice what you preach so, at age 92, you enter and finish a 13-kilometre race. This was the life of Jan Eisenhardt, one of Canada’s most important fitness and physical activity leaders. Over a career spanning more than eight decades and a life that lasted 98 years, Jan Eisenhardt never stopped moving.

Jan Eisenhardt participating in the Broløbet half marathon between Amager, Denmark and Malmö, Sweden at the age of 92.
Courtesy of Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame

An athlete and fitness advocate, Jan Eisenhardt moved to Canada from Denmark in 1927 and settled in Vancouver, BC. Determined to improve the health of the homeless and marginalized, Jan actively engaged in public fitness programming. While employed at the Vancouver Parks Board in the 1930s, Jan created Vancouver’s popular “Winter Community Recreation” fitness program for children. The program was so successful that the BC Provincial Government soon hired him as Director of Provincial Recreation and mandated Jan to develop a physical fitness program for the entire province.

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Tennis trophy won by Jan Eisenhardt while he lived in Vancouver. Eisenhardt was an accomplished athlete both in Denmark and in Canada before he became Supervisor of Physical Education and Recreation with the federal government.
Courtesy of Lisa Eisenhardt-Spillane

The result was the groundbreaking “Provincial Recreation” program, commonly known as “Pro-Rec.” The first time Jan assembled the Pro-Rec instructors, he simply walked into the room and, without saying a word, blew a referee’s whistle. “That caught people’s attention, I can tell you,” remembers one of the instructors. Those who knew Jan agree that he was relentless about his physical-fitness mission. “He would give you that handshake and not let go until you agreed,” says Olympic athlete and sport historian Bruce Kidd.

Jan Eisenhardt in 1943, delivering a radio broadcast in Montreal as Director of the Canadian Army Sports Program.
Courtesy of Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame

Jan Eisenhardt left the Pro-Rec program in 1939, at the beginning of the Second World War, to head the Canadian Army Sports Program. In 1943, he was appointed National Director for Physical Fitness. Jan joined the Department of Indian Affairs in 1950 as Director of Sports and Games to develop sport and recreation programming on reserves and in the Mission Schools. Jan’s new employer shared his positive view of physical activity programming, but also had another policy objective in mind. The thought at the time was that participation in organized sports and physical fitness programs was seen as one way to instill the values of the settler society in Indigenous youth, as the planned fitness programs would replace traditional Indigenous physical activities and dilute their cultural values. Over time, it was believed, this would help assimilate Indigenous youth into the dominant society.

Jan Eisenhardt likely had concerns about the Department’s goals, but with his usual energy, he threw himself into planning the new program. To learn about the state of health and fitness in Indigenous communities, he organized a tour of inspection. He travelled from Quebec to British Columbia, visiting over 70 Reserves, Day Schools, and Residential Schools. Wherever he went, he found buildings in poor condition, inadequate equipment, run-down facilities, unhealthy living conditions, and a general lack of qualified personnel.

Jan Eisenhardt visited Reserves and Residential Schools across Canada, later advocating for increased funding and resources after witnessing poor living conditions and lack of equipment.
Courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan, R-A4783

He suggested that a broad-based, well-funded plan for the development of physical activity, sport, and fitness programs and facilities for Indigenous communities would provide one of the solutions to these problems. He also felt that prizes and trophies should be offered to increase fitness and sports participation rates among Indigenous Peoples. The most important of these prizes would be a “Tom Longboat medal.” Jan Eisenhardt’s idea was to award this medal to the winner of a series of foot races between the best Indigenous athletes.

Jan’s superiors at Indian Affairs either ignored or failed to provide support for almost all of his suggestions. So, to move the project forward, Jan asked the Amateur Athletic Union of Canada (AAUC) to collaborate. The AAUC agreed, on the condition of receiving full credit for the idea. To secure its cooperation, Jan agreed to this demand. He then drew up the initial governing rules, and the Union ensured that they met the required standards. Guidelines for nominations at the local, regional and national levels were then developed.

Initially, the Department of Indian Affairs managed the Awards at the local and regional levels and the AAUC was responsible for the national Award. An AAUC committee selected the national Award winner, without input from Indigenous athletes or sports leaders.

The inaugural Tom Longboat Awards were presented in Montreal in the spring of 1951. Only two Indigenous representatives from the Mohawk community of Kahnawake were invited. The first national recipient was Frederick Baker, from Squamish, BC. He was selected for his achievements across no fewer than five sports. The Tom Longboat Awards were finally a reality. They would face many challenges over the coming years, but they also began to tell an important story about Indigenous athletes in Canadian sports.

The Tom Longboat Awards have increased in prominence in recent years, as well as placing greater emphasis on community involvement and sportsmanship.
Courtesy of Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame