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How the Voyageurs supporters' group became Canada's biggest soccer family

People say that Benny’s is your No. 1 store–but really, for the best in sweet delicacies, you’ve got to hit Philip’s Bakery on Lower Middle Street.

If the preceding sentence made any sense to you whatsoever, chances are you’re a member of the Voyageurs, the supporters' group for Canada’s national teams.

And you’re likely familiar with Benny’s, a superstore in Belize, and Philip’s Bakery, located in Kingstown, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, because you were exposed to their ads through the weird (always) and wonderful (sometimes) experience of supporting the Canadian men’s national team.

After all, simply trying to follow Canada–whose games are rarely at home, or even on domestic TV–can be a slog, compounded by the team’s propensity to neither win games nor score goals. So these bits of goofy, only-in-CONCACAF ephemera have a tendency to stick out as memorable moments for fans.

But buried within layers of esoteric jokes and references is the Voyageurs' core purpose: supporting Canadian soccer, however, whenever and wherever possible.

Photo via Canada Soccer on Flickr

The Voyageurs group was founded in 1996 by a handful of fans in Edmonton and, in the early days, existed largely in virtual form through its long-running message board. (The name derives from the French settlers who transported fur and other goods, often by canoe, across the area that would come to be known as Canada.)

One of their first big forays into the “real world” came in 2002, with the creation of the Voyageurs Cup, awarded annually to Canada’s top professional men’s club.

To this day, the board remains a vital tool for introducing new people to the group and connecting fans across a gigantic, sparsely populated country. In fact, with the group having no formal organizational hierarchy or regional chapters (or even universal standard for membership), the message board is often the only thread connecting those who self-identify as Voyageurs.

That arrangement can be a barrier to entry for newcomers. But it has created a tight-knit community amongst those who do decide to take the plunge.

“I stumbled across the Voyageurs website [several years ago], lurked for a while and then got involved,” says Rob Notenboom, a long-time soccer fan from Regina who now takes yearly national-team trips with fellow supporters from the Canadian Prairies.

Despite his early hesitance, Notenboom is now one of the group’s most connected members, and has been involved with some of its organizational efforts in recent years.

“There is this semi-ad-hoc, family-ish group where things just kind of happen because people want them to happen,” he says. “So they work together and it happens.”

While the message board and the advent of other social media tools made it easier for fans to connect, the rise of supporter culture in cities with MLS, NASL, and USL teams also helped push Canadian fans into stadiums to support their national teams.

Photo via Canada Soccer on Flickr

One such fan is Kristin Knowles, a long-time Toronto FC supporter who fondly remembers watching Canada win the 2000 Gold Cup, but could never figure out where national-team support fit into her life--until Aug. 20, 2008. Canada was playing its first-ever World Cup qualifier at BMO Field; it was the first home game in recent memory in which the crowd was notably pro-Canadian.

“It took one game, going to a qualifying game and being with the Voyageurs, and that was it,” says Knowles. “I was done. I was hooked. I was forever a Voyageur. It’s like finding your people.”

Despite being part of yet another unsuccessful World Cup qualifying campaign, that game represented a watershed moment for the dynamic at Canada’s home games. For years–decades, even–it was routine for home fans to be largely outnumbered by opposing fans at Canada games.

But as the Voyageurs grew from a loose online collective into a more powerful force in Canadian stadiums, the tide began to turn. All of a sudden, the group was capable of selling blocks of hundreds, or even thousands, of tickets to games played at home—not to mention hats, scarves, shirts and other merchandise adorned with Voyageurs designs.

It’s now common for the group to produce massive displays at home (including a newfound trend of waving the flags of every Canadian province and territory) and have some presence at away games (about 50 people are signed up for an all-inclusive trip to Mexico for March’s World Cup qualifier, through the Voyageurs).

Photo via Canada Soccer on Flickr

Much of that change has come about through the tireless logistical work of a long-time Voyageur named Jamie MacLeod. He believes the group’s support for the national teams should be passionate, but not exclusionary. (The Voyageurs now offer a “family” section, in addition to its section for “hardcore” fans). It's an approach that’s helped the group earn the blessing and cooperation of the Canadian Soccer Association.

“It’s community, more than nationalism,” MacLeod says. “We’re not out for glory. It’s just a community of people who like soccer and support the local game.”

MacLeod was impressed by the jovial attitude of American fans at last year’s Women’s World Cup in Vancouver, and says he’d like to see Canadian fans embrace the inherent silliness of the whole endeavor.

“I would like to see people in goofy costumes [at games], really making it clear we’re there to have fun,” he says. “We focus on the fun stuff.”

That sort of upbeat approach is crucial for the ongoing growth of a group that’s dedicated to supporting teams that only play sporadically and, when they do play, often provide fans with disappointment.

“It’s such an accepting group, which is really important, because we need more people,” says Knowles. “We want more people. In the midst of [on-field] despair and anger, it’s the best way to experience this.”

Photo via Canada Soccer on Flickr

As the group marks two decades of existence, there’s plenty afoot behind the scenes. MacLeod is currently running a contest to find a design for a 20th anniversary Voyageurs scarf, and plans are also in the works to award commemorative two-foot-long canoe paddles to the winners of the annual Voyageurs Player of the Year awards.

Most fundamental, though, is a change in the group’s structure. Members have begun the process to incorporate the Voyageurs as a nonprofit organization, a move that MacLeod says will provide greater financial oversight and allow the group to become “a legitimate member of the soccer community.”

However, he doesn’t anticipate any major changes to the defining characteristics of the group: its decentralized nature, its usage of the online message board as a connective hub, or its dedication to preserving nerdy references to the checkered past of Canadian soccer.

“You still have the eccentric core of people that remember stories about canoe heads and cucumbers and pineapples, stuff like that,” says MacLeod. “Philip’s Bakery is never going to go away.”

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