Tanya Henderson is a reluctant pioneer.
The 31-year-old is entering her second season as a defensive assistant with the B.C. Lions. Henderson made CFL history last year when she became the league's first full-time female coach.
"Most days, no, I don't (feel like a pioneer) I just do my own thing," Henderson said during a telephone interview Wednesday, which was recognized globally as International Women's Day honouring the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. "I know the impact that it has, I know when it comes down to it I am, I suppose.
"I'm just trying to move things forward. Much of what I've done, yes, it's for me, but a lot of it is I just want people to have more opportunity . . . for that to become more of a reality."
Henderson, 31, of Forestburg, Alta., played for the Edmonton Storm of the Western Women's Canadian Football League. Henderson also coached at Edmonton's St. Francis Xavier High School, with the Canadian Junior Football League's Edmonton Huskies and West Edmonton Raiders girls tackle football squad.
A harsh reality of life as a professional football coach is very long hours. But being able to concentrate on just one job has been a blessing for Henderson.
"When I took this job everyone was like, 'The hours are going to be long, it's going to be hard, you're going to be exhausted, it's going to be so difficult and demanding,'" she said. "That's not to say it hasn't, but in comparison to what I've been doing the last couple of years — I've been playing, I've been coaching, I've been trying to progress girls' and women's opportunities back home, running a business on the side and still working full-time — for me, the transition has been easier because before I was wearing so many hats."
Henderson won't be alone in 2023. Last week, the Ottawa Redblacks hired Nadia Doucoure as an offensive qualify control coach.
Doucoure served as a scout with Ottawa last year after being a guest coach during training camp. Dourcoure, a native of France, became the first female coach in Carleton Ravens history in May, 2021.
"As soon as Bob Dyce was named Ottawa's head coach I just had a gut feeling if not this year then it would be next year," Henderson said. "I really respect and support him a lot."
Henderson said she was immediately accepted by Lions players and coaches.
"I was surprised at how little negativity and pushback I had to deal with . . . which was super positive," she said. "This was something I had in mind, like, 'This was something I had to deal with and experience in minor and high school football so I'll probably be dealing with something very similar,' but it was far from that."
One challenge Henderson said she's face has been finding Canadian football resources and educational material. As a result, she's had to learn some CFL nuances on the fly.
"There's a lot on American football and some of that crosses over," she said. "But there's literally nowhere to go, at least that I've found, where you can really dig into the Canadian game.
"The reality is do I have as much knowledge as males coming in? No. But I've done everything I possibly can to learn more and until there's an actual proper pipeline for women to grow and develop as coaches, you're going get a couple of scenarios where people are learning on the fly."
Many Lions coaches are former CFL players, which can present a valuable learning resource. But the football paths male and female players take are vastly different.
"We don't have that linear past that men have," Henderson said. "We're not going from playing high school football to college or university, then the CFL. And then, 'I'm done playing. What do I do now? OK, coach.'
"Nadia and I and many other women, we're bouncing around. We're playing while we're coaching while we're working admin stuff, we're doing a little bit of everything."
That also means female coaches can bring a different approach and view to the game.
"We bring completely different mindsets and skillsets to the table because we didn't go through that same pathway," Henderson said. "We've experienced different things, we've had to look at things in different capacities and different ways."
Henderson remains open-minded about her future, saying she's never been one to set specific goals for her life.
"I've taken the opportunities that have been in front of me and listened to my intuition to go in a certain direction," she said. "I'll end up where I'm supposed to be, whether that's moving up the ranks to be a head coach or GM specifically in football, specifically in the CFL or if that takes a turn and goes in a completely different direction.
"Ultimately, if I'm accomplishing things, if I'm enjoying what I'm doing, if I'm making a change in the world in some capacity and making someone's life better, then I'm happy."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 8, 2023.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: FIXES last name to Henderson, at request of subject.