One of the many elements that makes the CFL unique is the league's import ratio, which requires teams to have a 42-man game-day roster of 20 non-imports, 19 imports and three quarterbacks (whose nationality doesn't count). "Non-imports" are essentially Canadians (see * at bottom), and while that's led some to accuse the CFL of being a quota-driven "minor league," recent years have seen a tremendous surge in the quality of Canadian talent, leading to more high-school athletes going on to top-level programs in the NCAA and CIS, playing the expansion of CFL combines, the addition of an extra round to the CFL draft and the creation of extra practice-roster spots specifically to develop Canadian players. Beyond the numbers, though, there are more and more Canadians who are amongst the biggest stars and the most exciting players to watch in the CFL. In honour of Canada Day, here are five non-import players fans should keep an eye on this season:
—Jon Cornish, running back, Calgary Stampeders: Cornish was named 55-Yard Line's top Canadian this week, and deservedly so. He terrorized the ineffectual B.C. Lions Friday night for 172 rushing yards (on 24 carries) and added another 20 receiving yards, and then donated $2,000 to Calgary flood relief efforts afterwards. It's about more than just one week for Cornish, though: he led the entire league in rushing yards last year with 1,457 (an average of 5.6 yards per carry), was a key part of the Stampeders' run to the Grey Cup and was named the West Division's most outstanding player (he lost the league-wide award to Chad Owens). Cornish, who starred in the Big 12 with the Kansas Jayhawks, has turned into one of the CFL's most feared running backs, and he seems all set for another dominant season.
—Andrew Harris, running back, B.C. Lions: Harris hasn't received quite the hype of Cornish so far, but he's just as deserving. He's the only other Canadian starting at tailback right now, an extremely rare situation given how non-imports haven't usually been used there, and one that says a lot about the talent of both him and Cornish. Harris ran for 1,112 yards last year (with a 5.9 yards per carry average) and added 718 yards on 95 receptions, leading the league with 1,830 yards from scrimmage. He got off to a slow start Friday, collecting just 20 rushing yards (on five attempts) and 20 receiving yards (on three catches), but should still be a player to watch this year.
—Ricky Foley, defensive end, Saskatchewan Roughriders: A prized offseason acquisitionby Saskatchewan, Foley has been a top defensive end for years. He was named the CFL's top Canadian in 2009 after a 12-sack season with B.C., went to the NFL's New York Jets briefly and controversially went to Toronto instead of returning to the Lions, but shone there. He was named the Grey Cup's top Canadian last November thanks to his crucial role in the Argos' win over Calgary, and was selected as our top defensive player in that game as well. We'll see how well he fits in with the Roughriders and how much he has left at age 31.
—Andy Fantuz, slotback, Hamilton Tiger-Cats: Fantuz also deserves credit for being a rare Canadian to lead the league in something, as he topped the CFL with 1,380 receiving yards in 2010. He spent much of 2011 in the NFL, trying to make the Chicago Bears, but has been effective since his return, collecting 175 yards on just 13 receptions with Saskatchewan in 2011, leading Hamilton with 971 receiving yards last year on 75 catches and getting off to a great start this year, picking up 155 passing yards on 10 catches in the Tiger-Cats' loss to Toronto Friday.
—Shea Emry, linebacker, Montreal Alouettes: Emry has become one of the best middle linebackers in the league, a role it's unusual to see Canadians in. He's battled concussions and depression, but has been an effective player despite that and has been the heart of the Alouettes' defence. Last year, he recorded 87 tackles and seven sacks plus an interception, a remarkable performance. He'll be a key figure to watch this year.
There are still issues worth discussing around Canadians in the CFL, including the current rules' lack of consideration for Canadian quarterbacks, but this is a league that has a tremendous amount of non-import talent, both on the field and in executive positions. That should be celebrated at all times, but especially on Canada Day. There may not be a CFL game this Canada Day, but this league's still an important part of this country, and players from this country are becoming a more important part of it all the time. Players like Cornish, Harris, Foley, Fantuz and Emry are just a few of the Canadian stars shining on the CFL stage.
*There are some loopholes by which players who grew up in Canada (like the legendary Ben Cahoon) or received football training outside the U.S. (like Aussie punter Josh Bartel) can be counted as non-imports. The rule's that way for a reason. It's thanks to Bora Laskin, the dean of law at Osgoode Hall in Toronto who later became a famed Canadian Supreme Court judge. Import ratios had existed in various forms since 1936 (following Winnipeg's Grey Cup triumph with eight imports in 1935), but in 1965, the Ontario Human Rights Commission ruled that the CFL couldn't discriminate based on citizenship. That led the CFL to turn to Laskin, and he found a loophole: if the judgement of import or non-import was based on where a player received his football training rather than his passport, it held up under the law (and it also prevented American players from getting Canadian passports just to become more valuable). That's why the rule still refers to imports and non-imports.