Canadian Rugby Hall of Famer and McGill alumna Gillian Florence spent 17 years playing internationally and retired as one of the most decorated athletes in her sport. She now lives rural Nova Scotia, where every morning she wakes up to the sounds of her chickens squawking. Despite her humble surroundings, Florence is one of the most celebrated players in Canadian rugby history, with a career spanning nearly two decades and five World Cups. As a reward for such an illustrious career, Rugby Canada will be honouring her as one of the seven inductees to the inaugural class of the Canadian Rugby Hall of Fame.
Florence began her rugby career playing for the Ste-Anne-De-Bellevue Rugby Football Club in the early 1990s. It was there that she became involved with the Canadian National Team.
“I had been playing with Ste-Anne Rugby Club, which was a top level club […] in the country,” Florence said. “McGill was [in] sort of a competitive league. It was fun and just another opportunity to play rugby in the fall.”
Florence played one season for the Martlets in 1995-96. As a freshman that year, she led the team with a pair of tries in a 50-0 beatdown of the Bishop’s Gaiters for the championship. Despite the team’s success, she was not able to continue playing for McGill.
“Back then, this was pre-CIS, […] there wasn’t much emphasis on the pathway to the national team,” Florence said. “The next season, I tried [to play for McGill], but it was conflicting with my national team responsibilities and commitments. It was too hard to do both.”
Starting in 1994, she played in five different rugby World Cups with the Canadian National Rugby team. Between 1994 and 2010, she played a fundamental role in Canada’s achievements on the field. Before 1994, Canada was generally considered a second-tier nation in the sport. The nation was newcomer to international competition and had not fared well in prior appearances. During Florence’s tenure, the team never finished below sixth, reached the semifinals on two separate occasions, and was consistently ranked one of the top-five teams in the world.
“Just the fact that Canada was in a semifinals, I think turned a lot of heads in the [international] rugby community,” Florence said. “We were what they called a ‘second tier nation’ in terms of the sport [….] Being able to compete on the world stage at that level, despite losing those games, we took pride in [playing] and were able to walk away from that still accomplishing something.”
Since retiring from national and club play in 2011, Florence has been focusing her career outside of rugby. She currently works for Ultra Electronics in Nova Scotia.
“Obviously rugby and sports took up a big chunk of my 20’s and 30’s, so here I am,” Florence said. “I worked in Montreal for Caterpillar and we moved [to Nova Scotia] when I was eight months pregnant, I had my first [child] here.”
Despite the distance from rugby in her new home, she’s excited about the prospect of returning to the sport for the HoF ceremony.
“It’s sort of surreal right now,” Florence said. “I moved to rural Nova Scotia […] totally feeling out of the loop of the game and not relevant. As close as it was, it seems like a lifetime ago, [and] I’m excited to get back into the Canadian rugby family.”
The HoF ceremony takes place on March 9 in Vancouver. It will precede the Canada Sevens men’s tournament that weekend. Florence and the other inductees will be in attendance for the matches, where they hope Canada will build on their 13th place finish in the Sydney Sevens on Feb. 5.