If you have any interest in early Canadian football history you are probably aware of entities like the Ontario Rugby Football Union and the Quebec Rugby Football Union and their roles in the genesis of the game. Since many of the teams and cities from these unions were in effect the founding fathers of the sport that evolved to become the CFL, their legacy is relatively well known.
But on the west coast, a long way away from the primary population centers of eastern Canada in the early parts of the last century, and somewhat removed even from the much smaller western prairie population centers, a different Canadian Football Union operated.
This regional history is poorly documented, confusing and convoluted. Not least because the relatively mild climate and the popularity of other sports resulted in the B.C. Canadian Rugby season being played in the winter across two calendar years whereas it was a fall sport in the rest of the country. Adding to the complexity teams would often switch back and forth with American football rules because games with US teams to the south were so much easier to organize than games with teams from other provinces.
Vancouver Meralomas versus Victoria Capitals Sept. 28, 1929
season opener at Athletic Stadium in Vancouver
While they had been playing British rugby in the province since at least the 1890's it wasn't until about 1923-24 that the British Columbia Canadian Rugby Union was formed. Only in B.C. was the distinction between British / English rugby and the Canadian form of rugby that evolved into Canadian football usually explicitly stated whenever the sport was pictured or reported on.
This activity encompassed junior, intermediate and senior level teams with the University of British Columbia varsity squad participating in most levels. By 1926 the governing body of the sport in B.C. must have become a member of the Canadian Rugby Union as post season interprovincial playoffs with other union's teams began.
1926-27 Meralomas Intermediate English Rugby commemorative composite photograph &
1928-29 Meralomas Senior English Rugby team photograph
Over the course of 11 seasons from 1926 through 1936 the senior tier of the B.C. Union hosted from three to five clubs and participated in post season matchups eight times losing in the western semi-finals 5 times and the finals three times. These teams were just as eligible to play in the Grey Cup as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers or the Toronto Argonauts but they never managed to advance that far.
Luckily some of this history is pictorially documented in various government archives where collections such as the Stuart Thompson fonds were the source of most of the vintage pics shown in this blog post. Naturally surviving physical artifacts outside of these official repositories are a lot harder to come by which is why the fate of the following item is so infuriating.
1930 Meralomas Senior Canadian Rugby championship composite photograph
The item shown above came out of an estate sale in B.C. and ended up on ebay a few years ago where appreciating its historical importance I snapped it up for $50 CAD. I was the only bidder. Subsequently it was trusted to Canada Post as a tracked package which they reported was delivered but it was never delivered to me and despite a claim and investigation it never turned up and was probably discarded.
Survived almost 90 years until the pathetically incompetent imbeciles at Canada Post managed to destroy this probably irreplaceable part of Canadian sport history. Nice going dipshits.
The name of the B.C. Union was somewhat fluid eventually transitioning to the British Columbia Rugby Football Union and concurrently known as the B.C. version of the Big Four. The Lipton Cup was created in 1927 for the formation of the "Big Four" and the Seaforth Cup was donated by one of the first senior teams, the Seaforth Highlanders in 1924-ish, with the distinction of which trophy being for which title somewhat obscure.
1931 Vancouver Athletic Club Senior Canadian Rugby championship team photograph
Besides the Meralomas, V.A.C. and the UBC Varsity club various other teams from Victoria, New Westminster and Vancouver North Shore also participated in the league.
After 1936 and the consolidation of the individual provincial rugby football unions into the Western Interprovincial Football Union for the rest of western Canada, the B.C. Union continued play but did not participate in any post season matchups. Whether this was over a rules or union membership dispute or cost of the travel for the games is unknown.
Calgary Bronks versus Vancouver Bulldogs November 23, 1940 at Athletic Park
Photo from the Stampeder Story Magazine published 1962
This situation remained the same through 1940 although there were occasional exhibition matches against the WIFU as shown in the above photo. This game was very well attended in Vancouver and perhaps help set the stage for the Calgary Bronks franchise to become the Vancouver Grizzlies in 1941 for their one and only WIFU season.
1929 U.B.C. Canadian Rugby Western Canada Intercollegiate championship team photograph
Ranji Mattu in 1939 with the UBC British Rugby team &
Ranji Mattu (#14) in 1942 playing American Football rules for the UBC Alumni team
In 1944 Mattu became the coach of the newly founded Vancouver Blue Bombers junior team, but lost the Western Canadian junior final in 1946 to the Calgary Tornadoes by one point. They returned to obliterate the Tornadoes in 1947, then crushed the Winnipeg Rods before defeating the Hamilton Junior Tigers to claim the first national Canadian Rugby title for a British Columbia team at any level.
Mattu was a rugged player and a fiery coach once serving a suspension for assaulting a referee during a game. Three members of his Blue Bomber championship team (plus one from the Meralomas juniors) went on to play with the undefeated Calgary Stampeders in their 1948 Grey Cup season.
Ranji Mattu is carried off the field after his team's Canadian Junior Title in January 1948
I know what you are thinking, exactly where can you see an actual collectible with Mattu's image on it? Thought you'd never ask...
1949 Western Canada Junior Finals Playoff Program versus Saskatoon Hilltops
Mattu also coached the Vancouver Blue Bombers to the Junior title games in 1949 and 1950 but they lost both of those matchups. The newspapers liked to call Mattu "The only Hindu Football Mentor on the Continent" and indeed he was undoubtedly the only Hindu Canadian Football Mentor in the world, although he was actually a Sikh.
Incidentally while researching this post I came across information that in 1946 there was a resumption of the B.C. Big Four league (except with just 3 teams) that seems to have been completely overlooked by the football historical record. While it isn't known which level of play this league might have been considered, Orville Burke who had quarterbacked the Ottawa Rough Riders for seven years including for one game in 1946, came out west to coach and play in the league and other players who went on to CFL careers also participated. So there are still things unresearched about Canadian football in the province farthest west.