Lack of athletic opportunities, distance, and discrimination — these are all barriers that Indigenous Varsity Blues student athletes face on their university-level athletic journeys.
Article No. 90 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action states a clause to further ensure the equal participation of members of the Indigenous community within sports. This mandates development programs, awareness campaigns, and funding to bring Indigenous inclusivity to the University of Toronto athletic programs. Every postsecondary institution across Canada is mandated to follow and abide by this clause.
As recent conversations regarding inclusivity have been stirring around campus, The Varsity took a look at the University of Toronto’s athletic program’s official policies with regard to Indigenous student athletes by analyzing inclusivity initiatives, recruitment, the requirements under the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and commentary from Indigenous student athletes.
How is the University of Toronto holding up?
Executive Director of the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education’s (KPE) Co-Curricular Athletics and Physical Activity Programs Beth Ali provided The Varsity with a list of past and current initiatives that U of T has implemented to facilitate the inclusion of marginalized communities, particularly Indigenous athletes, in its sporting programs.
In the past, U of T has adopted initiatives to further its promise of achieving equity. These include the 1994 Gender Equity Task Force, the 2001 Report on Inclusive Practices for Ethnocultural, Racial and Religious groups, the Varsity Blues Athlete Ally program, the Change Room Project, and Hurdle to Success.
Created in 2016, the KPE Task Force on Race and Indigeneity encourages the KPE community to “continue to reflect, examine, critique and take action on race and Indigeneity as we work to realize our vision and values.”
“This Task Force was created out of a symposium we held two years ago [in 2015] on accelerating action on race and indigeneity and that brought together a bunch of academic and non-academic people, as well as people from the indigenous community to talk about the truth and reconciliation report,” wrote Ali.
The task force is in charge of presenting a report that examines the KPE. The interim report was submitted to the Dean in December 2017 but received an extension to submit the final report for August 2018. This report is supposed to analyze and critique “anti-racism and Indigenous inclusion practices” and provide “substantive recommendations” and “an implementation framework involving measurable outcomes and timelines for implementation.”
“It will be interesting to see through the Task Force if there are better pathways to make that recruitment more meaningful from both sides,” wrote Ali. “[And] is there a way of enhancing our connections with the aboriginal community in order to assist us in recruiting more indigenous athletes and is there a way to make ourselves more accessible?”
For most athletes, the journey to university-level athletics is not one that is easy or perfect. In an effort to further examine the journey of Indigenous athletes at U of T, Varsity Blues fullback Griffin Assance-Goulais, an Anishinaabe of Beausoleil First Nation and Nipissing First Nation, discussed his life and upbringing as an Indigenous athlete.
For Assance-Goulais, living up on Christian Island created a barrier when it came to access to sports. But once he moved off reserve to Sturgeon Falls, he had more exposure to athletic opportunities.
“That was one of the benefits I got when I moved up north in 2007, there was so much more opportunity school-wise and athletically,” said Assance-Goulais. “I actually had little to no exposure to sports before I moved, and even then it took a few years to fully get into sport, but I never would’ve been given that opportunity had my family stayed on-reserve.”
In the spirit of facilitating inclusive recruitment, U of T runs the SOAR Indigenous Youth Gathering, an annual KPE program that invites 20 Indigenous youth ages 14–17 to “experience university life at U of T, visit Toronto landmarks, and participate in a series of recreational and Indigenous focused events and activities.”
The University of Western Ontario’s Mini University Program, which is similar to the U of T SOAR program, provides Indigenous youth with a one-week on-campus experiential learning program that involves activities in art research laboratories and the Athletic Centre.
The lack of high performance athletic opportunities in more remote regions of Ontario can also prove to be a hurdle when it comes to succeeding in sport.
“Coming from Sturgeon Falls, the football up north did not prepare me for the level of play at University, so I took any opportunity to play summer football and go to camps to play against better competition,” said Assance-Goulais.
His journey personifies the importance of programs like SOAR and Mini University Program. Without these experiences, athletes like Assance-Goulais wouldn’t have an introduction to high performance varsity athletics. Prospective student athletes who live in more remote regions and on reserves are often deprived of the same scouting and training opportunities that other athletes are given. Despite this, Ali insists that the Varsity Blues athletic program still has the ability to find talented athletes in northern Indigenous communities.
“Our varsity coaches recruit anywhere where they feel there is an athlete that can make a difference to our program, said Ali. “Our coaches recruit everywhere.”
Still, in the future, U of T needs to do more to mandate and enforce the inclusion of Indigenous student athletes. This is not a policy that they should place on the back burner. Accommodations must continue to be made in order to ensure equal treatment and equal opportunities for all aspiring Indigenous student athletes.
“I definitely am working to better myself each and every day so that I can be a role model for youth in my community to look at and realize that it is not unthinkable to come to university, play sports and get a top notch education,” said Assance-Goulais.
Article No. 90 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada
“We call upon the federal government to ensure that national sports policies, programs, and initiatives are inclusive of Aboriginal peoples, including, but not limited to, establishing:
- In collaboration with provincial and territorial governments, stable funding for, and access to, community sports programs that reflect the diverse cultures and traditional sporting activities of Aboriginal peoples.
- An elite athlete development program for Aboriginal athletes.
iii. Programs for coaches, trainers, and sports officials that are culturally relevant for Aboriginal peoples.
iv. Anti-racism awareness and training programs.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the interim report was scheduled to be published in December 2017.