The Sport Information Resource Centre
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The Sport Information Resource Centre
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Highlights

  • Over the past few years, the racism and discrimination brought to light throughout society and within the sport sector have forced a necessary reflection on policies and practices. 
  • There’s a renewed urgency for sport stakeholders to adopt new policies and programs to bring about cultural change that can ensure the future of sport includes all Canadians.
  • With the renewal of the Canadian Sport Policy (2023-2033) on the horizon, this article discusses how sport policies and programs in Canada have evolved and how they contributed to the development of safe and inclusive sport for all Canadians. 

Over the past few years, the racism and discrimination brought to light throughout society and within the sport sector have forced a necessary reflection on policies and practices. While the concepts of diversity, equity and inclusion were seeded in government policy many decades ago, the context has evolved significantly. Today, these terms have new meaning, in light of events in broader society and our responses to them. There’s a renewed urgency for sport stakeholders to adopt new policies and programs to bring about cultural change that can ensure the future of sport includes all Canadians.

In this article, we discuss how sport policies and programs in Canada have evolved and how they contributed to the development of safe and inclusive sport for all Canadians.

The past: Policy development

As early as 1971, the Government of Canada adopted an official multiculturalism policy to recognize the contribution of cultural diversity to the Canadian social fabric. The policy’s goal was to promote inclusive citizenship. In the next decades, the focus shifted to language of social exclusion and supporting specific groups who were identified as particularly vulnerable to economic and social marginalization, such as recent immigrants, “visible minorities,” religious minorities, sexual minorities, “urban Aboriginal peoples,” and individuals with disabilities. (Note: Certain terms above are drawn from that policy. Over time, the terms have evolved to reflect ongoing updates to appropriate, inclusive language.)

By the time the first Canadian Sport Policy was endorsed by federal-provincial/territorial governments in 2002, “social inclusion” and “equity” and other similar concepts were regularly included in policies, and shortly thereafter in legislation, in the Physical Activity and Sport Act (2003).

Through extensive collaboration and consultation, and over 2 years of work, the first Canadian Sport Policy reflected the interests and concerns of 14 government jurisdictions, the Canadian sport community and countless other sport stakeholders in Canada. That policy introduced the guiding principle that “sport is based on equity and access” as in:

Sport is welcoming and inclusive, offering an opportunity to participate without regard to age, gender, race, language, sexual orientation, disability, geography, or economic circumstances.

CSP 2002, p. 13

While consultations didn’t target specific groups, there was a noted effort to pay “specific attention to the issues of inclusion and equity” throughout the consultation and policy development process. That process welcomed and sought to involve everyone who didn’t currently consider themselves a part of the sport community or system, but who had the potential and desire to contribute.

The first Canadian Sport Policy reflected a new approach to shared leadership and collaboration to enhance participation, excellence, capacity and interaction in sport. The accompanying action plan prioritized the increased “participation of women, persons with a disability, Aboriginal peoples, and visible minorities.” The commitment from all governments for a common vision was an important step in aligning and committing to advancing sport equity in Canada.

A decade later, the renewal of the Canadian Sport Policy took a stronger approach. The Canadian Sport Policy 2012 (CSP 2012) expanded upon and embedded “inclusion and accessibility” in the policy’s values and principles:

“Sport delivery is accessible and equitable and reflects the full breadth of interests, motivations, objectives, abilities, and the diversity of Canadian society.”

CSP 2012, p. 6

The consultation process introduced targeted questions relating to under-represented populations and participation in sport. Additionally, it included questions about the lived experience of participants as well as the availability of accessing sport programs and services in both official languages. The answers provided valuable insight into inclusive and accessible sport, and the ability and likelihood for participation.

Important findings were that most consultation participants felt efforts should be made to increase the participation of under-represented groups in sport. In particular, these groups included: Indigenous people, racialized people, women and girls, persons with a disability, children and youth, new Canadians, and people who were at an economic disadvantage. Consultation participants felt that increasing participation would be a positive effect on health, community-building and personal development. It would also reinforce the priority of accessible sport.

As a result, increasing diversity was identified as a Policy Objective and desired outcome in the CSP 2012:

“Opportunities provided for persons from traditionally underrepresented and/or marginalized populations to actively engage in all aspects of sport participation including leadership roles.”

CSP 2012, p. 9

Sport Canada policies evolved along a similar trajectory. In the decade following the launch of the first Canadian Sport Policy, Sport Canada introduced several new policies targeting the same areas of inclusion and access:

More recently, the Canadian High Performance Sport Strategy (2019) identified 3 visionary pillars, 1 of which was a high performance culture based on integrity, trust and inclusivity. That strategy identifies what’s now known as the Indigenous Long-Term Participant Development Pathway, as an inclusive tool for supporting Indigenous participants in sport and recreation.

The present: Policy implementation through programs

When policy meets program that’s when inclusive sport can happen. The Canadian Sport Policy is delivered through the collaboration, engagement and commitment of provincial and territorial governments that advance this work within their unique jurisdictions. Bilateral agreements between the federal government and all 13 provincial and territorial governments are in place to support policy in action. Inclusive sport participation is the overarching objective of the bilateral agreements. Specifically, they:

  • support sport participation projects and activities for children and youth
  • provide opportunities for persons from under-represented or marginalized populations to actively participate in sport, including as athletes and participants, coaches, officials and volunteer leaders
  • contribute to strengthening Indigenous capacity and leadership
  • increase culturally relevant sport programming for Indigenous children and youth at the community level

At the federal level, implementation of sport policy is delivered through Sport Canada’s 3 funding programs: the Hosting Program, the Athlete Assistance Program and the Sport Support Program.

AWG Dene GamesThe International Multisport Games for Aboriginal Peoples and Persons with a Disability (IMGAPPD) component of the Hosting Program is inclusive by design. It provides competitive opportunities for designated under-represented groups in Canada facing systemic barriers to sport participation. Specifically, IMGAPPD supports the hosting of 4 eligible events in Canada: the North American Indigenous Games, the Arctic Winter Games, the Special Olympics World Games and the Deaflympics.

The Athlete Assistance Program provides grants to eligible, high performance Canadian athletes, including women and girls, athletes with a disability, those with any number of intersecting identity factors. Sport Canada works with National Sport Organizations to identify objective and merit-based evaluation criteria for athletes.

Under the Sport Support Program, policy has historically been implemented to eligible and funded organizations through reference-level funding (formerly called core funding). National Sport Organizations, Multisport Service Organizations, and Canadian Sport Centres are allocated protected funding to promote equitable access to information for Canadians in both official languages with accompanying accountability measures. Organizations recognized as providing programming and services to athletes with a disability are also provided funding that is protected for this purpose.  

Historically, while Sport Canada’s approach to programming and funding has provided reasonable stability to support official languages and athletes with a disability, it was recognized as insufficient in terms of supporting inclusive sport. Over the past 5 years, Sport Canada has been considering funding differently, expanding programs, and making space for innovation. As a result, there has been a significant shift and investment in creating a more diverse, inclusive and equitable sport system in Canada to align with the goals of the CSP 2012.

Sport Canada is beginning to see meaningful impact on inclusion in sport across Canada. This is happening through project-based funding to support new organizations that are piloting programs or working in communities. There are also new protected funds being allocated to existing funding recipients.

Here are examples of this ongoing, inclusive work:

  • Gender Equity Secretariat: Sport Canada has supported, administered and monitored existing and emerging gender equity initiatives and programs. The initiatives and programs are aimed at attracting and retaining women and girls in sport as well as introducing women and girls to sport at all levels, including athletes and participants, coaches, officials and leaders. All this with the goal of meeting the target to achieve gender equity in sport at every level by 2035.
  • Innovation Initiative: This part of the Sport Support Program provides funding to eligible organizations to test innovative approaches to sport participation and retention challenges, as they pertain to equity, diversity and inclusion. In 2022 to 2023, these projects will particularly seek to support Black, Indigenous, 2SLGBTQQIA+, new Canadians and low-income groups.
  • Sport for Social Development in Indigenous Communities: This is another part of the Sport Support Program, which aims to expand the use of sport for social development in more than 300 Indigenous communities. The purpose is to achieve outcomes in the areas of health, education, employability and at-risk behaviour. New funding will ensure that Indigenous women and girls have access to meaningful sport activities.
  • Community Sport for All Initiative: A brand new part of the Sport Support Program has the goal of supporting community-based organizations to deliver organized sport projects for equity-deserving groups. In particular, delivering such projects to Black, Indigenous and 2SLGBTQQIA+ communities as well as to newcomers to Canada. The objectives are to increase sport participation and retention; remove barriers to participation in sport programming; and help make organized sport safe and accessible to all.

Beyond program funding, the Minister of Canadian Heritage and the Parliamentary Secretary for Canadian Heritage (Sport) held a general Sport Town Hall and a series of roundtable discussions on sport in fall 2020. They covered the following topics to advance Government of Canada priorities relating to diversity and inclusion:

  • LGBTQ2 flag with a basketballAdvancing equity and anti-racism in the cultural, heritage and sport sectors
  • Indigenous sport
  • Diversity discussion on women and LGBTQ2+
  • Recreational sport
  • High performance sport

Those discussions included women’s groups, LGBTQ2+ organizations, Indigenous organizations, as well as sport organizations. Sport Canada has continued the discussion by engaging with experts, including the Federal Anti-Racism Secretariat and the LGBTQ2 Secretariat. Those engagements had to happen before embarking on a series of consultations to support the development of an Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and Sport for All Strategy. Lived experiences shared through consultations and data collected (for example, qualitative data from stakeholders, and disaggregated data) will ensure that evidence-based decision making is well supported in the future. Sport Canada will use collated evidence to evaluate how to update, adapt or improve its policies and programs to support the identified needs of Canadians. This marks an important shift in the way progress will be measured and in how funding and programs will be delivered. The shift aligns with the necessary move toward prioritizing safe, welcoming and inclusive sport.

The future: Where to next?

This is only the tip of the iceberg of the work that must be done. Sport Canada recognizes that the work can’t be done in isolation. After all, Canadian sport is a complex and dynamic network of intersecting systems that integrate context, geography, organizations, people, places and infrastructure. In December 2021, the Mandate Letter from the Prime Minister to all Ministers provided clear direction on the importance of incorporating the views of Canadians when considering our systems:

“We must continue to address the profound systemic inequities and disparities that remain present in the core fabric of our society, including our core institutions. To this effect, it is essential that Canadians in every region of the country see themselves reflected in our Government’s priorities and our work. As Minister, I expect you to include and collaborate with various communities, and actively seek out and incorporate in your work, the diverse views of Canadians. This includes women, Indigenous Peoples, Black and racialized Canadians, newcomers, faith-based communities, persons with disabilities, LGBTQ2 Canadians, and, in both official languages.”

This is a clear driver for all policy in Canada in the years to come. In the Mandate Letter specifically to the Minister of Sport and Minister responsible for the Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec, the Prime Minister provides an even more specific commitment. He outlines the importance of ensuring “a holistic and balanced strategic approach to sport development in Canada that supports the purpose and goals of the Canadian Sport Policy, including improved health and wellness for all Canadians through community sport, increased accessibility to sport programs, reduced barriers and the achievement of social and economic goals through the intentional use of sport.”

Work is underway toward the next iteration of the Canadian Sport Policy with consideration for incorporating the diverse views of Canadians. The inclusive nature of the engagements to be undertaken by the federal, provincial and territorial governments will help shape the future of the Canadian Sport Policy. The sport environment has changed since the development and publication of the first 2 policies. However, sport in Canada continues to require a policy for aligning the activities of the many organizations making up the sport system and for creating a shared vision for sport’s future. Fill out the Canadian Sport Policy Renewal Survey to have your say.

The intent of the Canadian Sport Policy is to continue to serve as the roadmap for progress to the desired state of Canadian sport. It’s informed by current evidence and by stakeholder consultations around various themes (including diversity, equity and inclusion).

The implementation is the challenge to policy makers, program deliverers and the Canadian sport community as a system. In acknowledging that diversity is defined differently in different contexts, we must also acknowledge that equity, diversity and inclusion are products of design. They’re necessary to see meaningful change, especially at the community level where the vast majority of Canadians participate in sport.

It’s no easy task to design inclusive programs. It requires intention and listening to the needs of those you wish to serve. It requires learning to have difficult and honest conversations. It requires flexibility and innovation. It requires willingness to try and fail forward. It means using individual power and privilege to create safe and accessible spaces for equity-deserving Canadians to engage in sport. All this must happen while also recognizing that sport policy in Canada is supported by limited resources, built on the backs of volunteers, and it requires sensitivity to the unique needs of each group.

It’s certain that the language of diversity, inclusion and equity will continue to evolve. As that happens, new terms and concepts will better describe intentions. What matters most is that the language doesn’t distract from the critical goal of effecting grassroots change to ensure all Canadians can access safe, quality sport and feel that they belong.


About the Author(s)

Joanne Kay, Ph.D., is senior research and policy analyst, Insight Unit of Sport Canada. She has worked in policy development and research at Sport Canada since 2002. Joanne has been closely involved with all stages of planning, consultation, writing and evaluation of the Canadian sport policies. She used to compete in Ironman triathlons, but now spends most of her free time shuttling her 2 hockey-obsessed daughters to practices and games.

Lindsay Larue (she, her) is senior analyst in the Gender Equity, Inclusion and Innovation Unit of Sport Canada. She and her team lead work to advance inclusive sport policy and innovative programming. With over 12 years at Sport Canada, she’s passionate about using evidence-based decision making, collaboration and action to drive meaningful change in sport and physical activity. Her lived experience as a sport scientist, recreational woman athlete, coach and volunteer, and sport parent further fuel that passion.

Klara Steele (she, her) is the director of Policy and Planning at Sport Canada, overseeing strategic policy, gender equity, inclusion and innovation, and data and research since August 2020. Throughout her more than 20 years of federal government experience, she has also advanced physical activity, refugee affairs and multiculturalism, and policy and program innovation. A competitive alpine skier in her youth as well as a recreational sport participant, she now supports her 2 daughters in sport and physical activity.

Benoit Gendron (he, him) is the director at Sport Canada responsible for leading the renewal of the Canadian Sport Policy. Over the last 15 years, he worked on policy development related to accessibility, Indigenous affairs, Northern development and employment. Benoit practices Crossfit and is passionate about snowboarding and mountain biking, which he practices with his wife and 2 sons.


The information presented in SIRC blogs and SIRCuit articles is accurate and reliable as of the date of publication. Developments that occur after the date of publication may impact the current accuracy of the information presented in a previously published blog or article.