The Sport Information Resource Centre
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The Sport Information Resource Centre

The issues that face sport organizations are complex. A sport organization board needs to engage in dialogue, listen to its full spectrum of stakeholders, and be patient enough to transform its understanding of complicated issues. A steward-leader board is uniquely equipped to listen and lead to a desirable future.

In honour of Clean Air Day (June 8), SIRC partnered with Health Canada to present information about air pollution and how it can affect the health and performance of outdoor sport participants. We also highlight the ways coaches, officials and sport organizations can adapt to keep all participants safe during outdoor sporting activities.

In recent years, there’s been a renewed focus to create safer environments for participants in sports activities. While advances in sport safety have primarily revolved around addressing abuse and maltreatment and COVID-19 return-to-play protocols, what’s been overlooked is the aspect of sport safety associated with air quality in outdoor sports environments.

Fortunately, Canada’s air is consistently ranked among the cleanest in the world, according to the World Health Organization. But that’s no reason for us to let down our guard! Even at low levels, air pollution can negatively affect human health and performance.

Understanding air pollution and its effects on human health

In Canada, air pollution comes from: Vehicles (car with exhaust) Industrial facilities (factory with smokestacks) Forest fires (trees burning) Wood burning (indoor wood stove) Construction (machine used to dig foundations and other building projects) Agriculture (tractor) Oil and gas industry (fossil fuel tower) Electricity generation (power transmission tower)
Sources of air pollution in Canada. See the complete infographic created by Health Canada.

Air pollution is a mixture of chemical, physical and biological agents. There are different types of air pollutants, including fine particulate matter (PM2.5), carbon monoxide (CO), ground-level ozone (O3), sulphur dioxide (SO2), and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). These pollutants can come from many sources, including vehicle, agriculture and industrial emissions.

Short-term exposure to air pollutants has been linked to lower lung function and asthma flare-ups. Of greater concern, long-term exposure has been associated with an increased risk of lung cancer, stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and premature death.

While air pollutants from sources like traffic, factories and forest fires can negatively affect the health of everyone, those at increased risk are children, older adults, pregnant people and individuals with pre-existing medical conditions. Although you might not suspect it, people engaging in sports and exercise are at increased risk too.

How air pollution affects sport participants

Sport participants require more oxygen to perform at their best during training and competitive events. To meet this increased oxygen demand, sport participants breathe rapidly and deeply, taking large quantities of air into their lungs. If sport participants are in an area with air pollution, this also means that they’re inhaling higher amounts of air pollutants.

Sport participants are also at increased risk of exposure to air pollution because they breathe primarily through their mouths during strenuous activities. What this means is that the air they breathe bypasses the nose’s natural filtration mechanism, leading to more air pollutants being inhaled directly into their lungs. Some air pollutants, such as gases and fine particulates, can go from the lungs into the bloodstream affecting other organs as well as the lungs.

In the short term, increased exposure to air pollutants can affect sport performance by making breathing more difficult and increasing how hard it feels like you’re working during aerobic exercise (perceived exertion). In the long term, this increased exposure can lead to a wide range of adverse health effects that can get in the way of sport participation. Athletes with pre-existing medical conditions such as asthma are even more vulnerable to the effects of air pollution.

Strategies to reduce exposure to air pollution for outdoor sport 

A cyclist rides near industrial smokestacks

Sport organizations, coaches and officials are responsible for the safety of their participants. Lightning guidelines are widely used across Canada and the world to protect outdoor sports participants from hazards associated with lightning. Likewise, outdoor sport organizations, coaches and officials can protect themselves, athletes and spectators from exposure to air pollution during outdoor sports activities. Strategies include:

  • Monitor the news and trusted social media sources for local and regional public health air quality alerts
  • Cancel or reschedule outdoor sport activities on days when air quality is poor
  • Relocate outdoor sport activities to indoor venues when air quality is poor
  • Choose locations for outdoor sport activities away from sources of air pollution, such as factories or heavily used roadways 

Using the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI)

One tool that anyone involved in sport can use to monitor air quality is the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI). The AQHI, which can be found at Airhealth.ca, is a public health tool used to communicate the risks of exposure to air pollution in your area. The AQHI presents the relative health risk associated with the combined health effects of air pollutants, notably NO2, PM2.5 and O3. The risks are based on a scale of 1 to 10+. The 4 categories of relative risk go from low risk (1 to 3) all the way up to very high risk (10+).

Bilingual chart showing the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) risk values grouped by:   low risk (1 to 3) in shades of blue  moderate risk (4 to 6) in shades of yellow to orange  high risk (7 to 10) in shades of pink to burgundy red  very high risk (10+) in brown
The AQHI scale and health risk categories. To see the forecasted and observed AQHI values in your area, visit AirHealth.ca.

The AQHI presents the current, observed air pollution risk and it also forecasts the AQHI values for later in the day and the next day. The risk presentation is accompanied by health messages that you can use to help decide if outdoor sport participation is safe in your area or if you should consider rescheduling or cancelling your activity. By providing the forecasted values for the upcoming days, the AQHI can help you plan future outdoor activities.

The optimum time to carry out outdoor sport activities is when the health risk is low (1 to 3). You may still hold your activity when the health risk is moderate (4 to 6), but you should monitor participants for symptoms and change the activity accordingly. Pay particular attention to individuals with pre-existing medical conditions such as asthma, When the health risk is high (7 or above), you should cancel and reschedule the activity for when the health risk is low. Or, if possible, move the activity to an indoor location like a school gym.

If you would like to receive air quality alerts directly to your phone, you can download the AQHI app on Google Play or the App Store

Advancing air quality education and policy in sport

Outdoor soccer on a field when there’s low air quality and smog is visible.

To protect outdoor sport participants, sport organizations must be aware of the effects that air pollution can have on everyone involved in sport, from athletes and coaches to spectators and officials. To this end, Health Canada has initiated, and is providing financial and technical support to, the Sport Information Resource Centre (SIRC) to develop an e-learning module and a policy guide focused on air pollution and sport.

The e-learning module will review the effects of air pollution on outdoor sport participants. It will also identify ways to take action to protect all participants from exposure to air pollution during outdoor sports activities. When it’s ready, the module will be housed on the Coaching Association of Canada’s e-learning platform, The Locker.

Health Canada is also working with SIRC to develop a guide to help sport organizations develop air quality policies that will help protect their participants now and in the years to come. The policy guide will be available to download from SIRC’s website.

The free training module and policy guide will be available in fall 2022. Please contact info@sirc.ca for more information.

Recommended resources

You may find the following resources helpful as you work to learn more about air pollution and what your organization can do to help keep your participants safe:

Building a successful team involves identifying, selecting and integrating people with complementary skills and characteristics that improve team dynamics. First, identify the skills and characteristics that your team needs. Second, select people with these skills and characteristics, and consider how they fit together as a group. Third, integrate teammates by establishing clear roles and expectations, and engaging them in group-oriented activities.

While management is about “getting the work done,” governance ensures organizations pursue the right purpose, in the right way, and continuously develop. In any sport organization, the board of directors’ role is to govern the organization. When board members are also on the management team, it can help to divide meetings into 2 parts. One part for focusing on governance roles and the other for management responsibilities. Otherwise, day-to-day responsibilities can distract from the board’s work.

The importance of Safe Sport and how it can be further integrated into Canadian Sport is an ever-evolving process for many sport organizations. A key question for many organizations centers on what “independence” means in the context of investigative processes related to Safe Sport. A group of researchers at the University of Toronto led by Gretchen Kerr dive into this issue in a Centre for Sport Policy Studies position paper.


Highlights


“You can’t manage what you don’t measure” is a popular saying in leadership circles. However, knowing what to measure to inform change is a craft altogether.

To advance equity and inclusion in sport, the “who” of measurement is fundamentally as important as the “what.” Indeed, it’s important to understand the perspectives, realities and lived experiences of the people who experience sport as well as those who are pushed away, left on the sidelines, or chose to opt out. And that understanding has never been more important as sport organizations from coast to coast work to reinvent themselves to be safe, inclusive spaces for all.

This article draws on research findings from the Change the Game research project, by the MLSE Foundation with the University of Toronto. The project aims to clarify the value of embracing data practices concerning race and other identity factors for organizations working to achieve greater equity for youth in sport. At the same time, while calling attention to the systemic and many decision-making risks of not doing so.

Sport, society and social justice

A coach with BIPOC basketball players in a huddle on the sidelines of a basketball court

MLSE LaunchPad is a youth Sport for Development (SFD) facility in 1 of Canada’s most socioeconomically and culturally diverse neighbourhoods. The facility is located steps from a university that’s undergoing a renaming exercise, because its namesake was an architect of Canada’s Residential Schools system. Just steps away in another direction, a major thoroughfare’s street name is under review for its namesake having worked to delay abolishing slavery.

Social justice movements actively reflect communities’ and individuals’ lived experiences with institutions. A long overdue, social justice reckoning across society has been sparked, within and beyond sport. That spark comes in the cumulative aftermath of: George Floyd’s murder, the discovery of thousands of unmarked graves of residential school children, and the compounding effect of racist incident after incident.

Organizations across Canada have released many statements, hashtags, and commitments to change. These have come from professional sports to national sport organizations and from SFD programs to municipal, physical activity opportunities for youth. Equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) roles and committees are commonplace. “Build Back Better” is a popular mantra on social media with implicit acknowledgement that the status quo is no longer acceptable if sport is really going to live up to the promise and potential of sport as a force for good, and for all.

Changing the game: For whom?

If this is truly a watershed moment, where it’s possible to reinvent sport equitably, then the issue before sport providers is how to operationalize such change. How do we dismantle systems of inequality and centre our sport sector around people it’s intended to serve? And crucially, what data exists to guide where to begin and how best to allocate increasingly limited resources? The unfortunate truth to the question of data sources is there isn’t much available. Although data on sport is routinely analyzed through the lenses of age and gender equity, there’s limited (if any) publicly accessible demographic data to support meaningful insights related to race, geography, household income and other intersecting aspects of marginalization.

These are some of the issues that MLSE Foundation explored when launching its Change the Game research program on access, engagement and equity in youth sport. MLSE Foundation collaborated on this research program with Simon Darnell, Ph.D., and the University of Toronto’s Centre for Sport Policy Studies. Amidst slogans and voices calling for change, the fundamental ethos guiding the Change the Game research team was a clear-eyed commitment to understanding the reality of who we’re aiming to change the game for and what practical and concrete success looks like to them.

Informally referred to behind the scenes as a “youth sport census,” nearly 7000 youth, and parents and guardians of youth, responded from across Ontario as a representatively diverse sample for the research program. The sample spanned race, gender, household income level, ability, geography, immigration status and other demographic variables. It became the largest demographic survey of youth sport access and engagement to date in Canada. The survey explored barriers to participation and ideas for building a better and more equitable sport system for the diversity of Ontario’s youth, in the words of youth. A publicly accessible, open-data portal contains a summary report, interactive results dashboard, and an anonymized data set. Stakeholders who are interested in mining the data, may download the data set for their own learning, planning, funding decisions and policymaking.

The rest of this article isn’t meant to repeat the overall findings. Instead, this article will showcase the value of embracing data practices concerning race and other demographic factors, in pursuit of advancing equity and inclusion goals for youth in sport. By making a case for how race and identity-based data can help drive meaningful action toward a more equitable future, let’s pay homage to the great long-form basketball analysts. To do so, we’ll take a deep dive into 2 specific questions from the original Change the Game study and the insights we can draw.

Understanding blind spots

A series of “I” statements formed a 4‑item, Likert-style questionnaire about youth experiences with racism and discrimination in sport. The questionnaire was aligned with MLSE LaunchPad’s MISSION measurement model for youth data collection. Respondents were asked to select whether they strongly disagreed, disagreed, agreed or strongly agreed with each statement.

For example, 1 of the statements read: I have experienced racism in sports. Overall, 10% of youth in the study agreed or strongly agreed to having directly experienced racism in sport. Although perhaps meaningful in a dialogue about equity, is 10% on a survey enough for a sport organization, funder or policymaker to meaningfully change course in their decision-making or strategic plan? Hard to say.

Consider now the same statement through the perspective of specific segments of youth in the study.

Figure 1: Survey statement, “I have experienced racism in sports” 10% of overall youth (entire sample of respondents) agreed or strongly agreed 28% of Indigenous youth respondents agreed or strongly agreed 33% of Black youth respondents agreed or strongly agreed 22% of overall BIPOC youth respondents agreed or strongly agreed
Figure 1. Survey statement, “I have experienced racism in sports.”

How does your interpretation of the data change with this additional perspective? If a sport organization is genuinely interested in addressing anti-Black racism or forging right relations with Indigenous communities, does this new story unfolding help to convey a different level of urgency for action?

This is the power of demographic data: enabling one to look in-depth to better understand vital stories and perspectives that are otherwise at risk of being neutralized by the majority.

Now let’s consider a different example.

The fallacy of averages

Against the backdrop of “Build Back Better” becoming an increasingly popular slogan or hashtag, youth were asked to shed light in practical terms on what that might look like in their reality. A total of 9 thematic areas (or factors) received greater than 10% of support among youth overall, as follows:

Figure 2: “Build Back Better” factors for youth in sports 40% to 60% of overall youth respondents supported the following factors would “Build Back Better” in their reality: •	More affordable equipment •	Coaches who help me improve •	More affordable sport opportunities 20% to <40% of overall youth respondents supported: •	More opportunities to improve at a sport •	More adaptive sport opportunities •	Access to a greater variety of sports •	Teammates accepting who I am Fewer than 20% of overall youth respondents supported: •	Coaches who look like me •	Organizations that respect my culture
Figure 2. “Build Back Better” factors for youth in sports.

To be clear, each of these 9 factors is an important and sound investment area to improve accessibility and experiences in sport, including the 3 factors that polled the highest. 

However, equity isn’t a first-past-the-post concept. In many respects, the opposite is true. To get real about advancing racial equity for youth in sport in an authentic way, one must align their data practices accordingly. Doing so can help by enabling a deeper awareness of the issues and perspectives of constituencies whose relative size may not be large enough to move the overall averages.

With that in mind, let’s explore 2 of the factors in more detail. “Coaches who look like me” and “Organizations that respect my culture” were each called out as important by less than 20% of youth in the overall sample. Do any interesting insights emerge when race-based and Indigenous-identity data lenses or filters are applied?

As it turns out, yes.

Having “coaches who look like me” was identified by approximately 10% of youth overall, the lowest among the 9 factors. However, a closer look affirms this item as having outsized importance to specific demographics within the sample, notably South Asian youth (more than 20%) and Black youth (more than 30%). When reflecting on this 9‑factor list of Build Back Better, how do these additional details inform your own decision-making or perspective on the most critical issues to prioritize addressing?

Exploring who selected “Organizations that respect my culture” through a race-based and Indigenous-identity lens is also interesting, for a different reason.

Figure 3: “Build Back Better” means organizations respect my culture Black 38% Middle Eastern 35% South Asian 34%  South East Asian 32% Mixed race 28% Indigenous 26% East Asian 24% Latinx 20% White 12%
Figure 3. “Build Back Better” means organizations respect my culture.

The distribution pattern is obvious, especially when compared to the Build Back Better table in Figure 3. More than 1 in 5 youth from all 8 of the unique BIPOC categories in this survey called for respect for their culture, even though that rated proportionally much lower in the overall sample of youth.

Decision-making risks

Neither of these examples discredits the importance of any of the other Build Back Better factors cited above. They’re all vital components of a healthy future for youth sport and need attention from providers, policymakers and funders. These examples are provided to reinforce the value of intentionally including demographics in an organization’s data collection plans. Those demographics can shed light more meaningfully on how different experiences and ideas can show up for different segments of the population. If instead of race, the variable of interest had been gender, household income, ability or other intersectional factors of identity, then the results displayed may have told a different story. The core purpose or value proposition is for an organization’s EDI strategy and decision-making process to be informed by the people they intend to serve.

Applying demographic data collection in your organization

Before you can improve an organization’s measurement and evaluation plans, you require some baseline competencies in data management, including privacy, ethics and analysis. Those competencies can help you apply some of the methods and tactics to integrate intersectional demographic lenses to your organization’s plans. Here are tips an organization can consider when getting started. They’re grounded in 4 pillars of transparency, trust, trying it out and talking it out.

  1. Transparency

If you’re collecting demographic information from staff, coaches, athletes, families or other stakeholders essential to your organization’s success, it’s key to be open and honest with them. For example, openly share why you’re collecting identity-based information, how you’ll handle the information, who will see it, and what you’ll do with the insights you learn. Engaging your core constituencies in these ways can help demonstrate respect, enable meaningful and informed consent to share data, and encourage active partnership on a shared journey to shape a more equitable future.

  1. Trust

Male High School Basketball Team Having Team Talk With Coach

Trust often makes all the difference between complete and incomplete information on a survey or profile page. Whether a respondent has a trusting relationship with the sport organization or its staff will often determine whether that respondent fills out all the fields on their registration or profile forms. Without that trust, they may only complete the required fields. It’s the difference between responding fulsomely to a multiple-choice question on a survey versus just selecting the “prefer not to answer” option. Individual respondents (data contributors) must believe the organization has their back and will use their data to make meaningful improvements. Sometimes this can take time, and it’s OK to be patient.

For example, at the MLSE LaunchPad SFD facility, this is a pattern seen when new members sign up for the first time. Youth, parents and guardians often fill out the minimum required information to get started on attending programs. Then, what and how much they’re willing to share changes over time. Their feedback and sharing practices grow after having built a trusting relationship with staff and the organization. When new members have gained an understanding of how data contributes to understanding and improvements, then that also contributes to enhanced sharing.

  1. Try (it out)

To echo Courtney Szto, Ph.D., of Queen’s University at the 2021 Anti Racism in Hockey Incubator: Do something! Too many ideas for change get left on the sidelines. Trying to do right typically trumps inaction, even if a concept is imprecise or not fully formed. Even if it’s a small step forward, take a shot. If you don’t achieve your intended outcome, learn from it, regroup, change your approach and try again. Progress can take unusual paths, but there’s tremendous value in letting stakeholders see that you’re actively trying to make a difference.

  1. Talk (it out)

Data practices don’t come naturally to everyone. If you’re considering a new idea, direction or practice, we encourage you to reach out to someone in the field to help critically assess your approach. If you’re a sport or SFD organization interested in having a sounding board on what an intersectional approach to demographic data collection could look like in your setting, then reach out to a member of the MLSE LaunchPad Research and Evaluation Team.

In closing, sport providers, funders and policymakers want to prioritize meaningful action toward equity, their toolkit to shape the future of sport should include embracing intersectional data collection practices, including race and other equity-related demographic factors. However, keep in mind that there’s potential risk if sport leaders are relying on data featuring top line averages and rankings without an intersectional approach. The data informing their decisions carries a heightened risk of being influenced by the majority and increases the likelihood of actions that perpetuate the very systems they’re supposedly seeking to reshape.

Recommended resources

Centre for Sport Policy Studies, University of Toronto

Indigeniety, Diaspora, Equity and Anti-racism in Sport (IDEAS) Research Lab

The First Nations principles of ownership, control, access, and possession – more commonly known as OCAP®

We All Count toolkit

About MLSE LaunchPad

MLSE LaunchPad is a 42000 square foot Sport For Development facility in downtown Toronto built and supported by the MLSE Foundation to advance positive developmental outcomes for youth, aged 6 to 29, who face barriers.


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. 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:

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:

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:

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.

This is the fourth blog post in a series designed to increase sport organizations’ capacity to govern well in an increasingly complex world. Check out the previous posts about the role of the board, strategic foresight and the keys to gold medal governance.

In the first blog that I wrote for the Gold Medal Governance series, I identified the need for a board to steward the organization on behalf of those who grant it the authority to govern. In the second blog, I quoted Robert Greenleaf who bluntly asserted that “without foresight a board cannot govern.”

Some readers of this blog will recognize Greenleaf as the person attributed with introducing “servant leadership” into the present day and applying his ideas during his 38-year career at AT&T. He also wrote and spoke about how attitudes and philosophies that promote such leadership can positively affect all interpersonal endeavours.

In light of SIRC’s inclusive and respectful communications, I’ll use the terms steward leadership and steward-leader as synonyms for Greenleaf’s original terms in this blog. Here, I explore why sport organization boards need to follow the path of steward leadership. According to Greenleaf (2016), a steward-leader is one who wants to make a difference and accepts the opportunity to participate in leadership but remains a steward first.

To govern effectively, the board must be steward first. It must engage with its members and stakeholders and understand their values and priorities. This is the board’s primary relationship. Only then, can a board lead. It must become more knowledgeable about what’s important to those it serves. In doing so, the board can provide vision and direction and know what must be protected along the way to accomplishing this vision. Steward leadership calls on the board to enable staff to apply their expertise, exercise creativity and grow as persons.

What does a steward-leader board do?

A group of office workers in a board meetingA steward-leader board understands that it holds the association in trust for a finite time only, but that its present-day decisions will have long-term effects. A board might wisely adopt the Indigenous worldview that today’s actions and decisions will live through 7 generations.

Rather than focusing on how it can solve current problems, the steward-leader board listens. In a meeting, board members proactively consider the full range of board members’ perspectives, rather than trying to convince each other that their opinion is the right one. The steward-leader board doesn’t stop listening at the end of a board meeting. Listening to each other is only the board’s first step in developing its understanding of perspectives and values related to an issue.

The issues facing national and provincial and territorial sport organizations today are complex and complicated. A board needs to engage in dialogue, listen to its full spectrum of stakeholders, and be patient enough to transform its understanding of issues such as Safe Sport, diversity and inclusion, mental health and wise and ethical use of resources.

Listening leads to greater awareness, necessary for the steward-leader board to conceptualize a future that’s more than a simple and idealized extension of today’s realities. Shaping an inspiring future also depends on developing foresight, another essential trait of steward-leader boards.

Greenleaf was strident about the steward-leader board’s need to develop an intuition based on lessons from the past, the realities of present day, and an informed view of the possible futures (Moore, 2020). He saw the failure of leadership to develop foresight as an ethical failure. If a board doesn’t develop the ability to make decisions in the present that are sensitive enough to survive a changing context and lead to a desirable future (in other words, foresight), then the board isn’t leading, only reacting.

Functioning as a steward-leader board

Millennial Asia businessmen and businesswomen meeting brainstorming ideas about new paperwork project colleagues working together planning success strategy enjoy teamwork in small modern night office.The steward-leader board is most effective when functioning as a team of equals. The importance of teamwork is easily appreciated in sport. To be an effective board requires individual board members to recognize they’ve no authority independent of the single voice of the board; their authority exists only as a group. This applies to the board chair who “is not the board’s boss, but rather the board’s [steward] – a special [steward] given certain limited authority over the governance process and responsible to the board for how it is used” (Carver, 2010).

Greenleaf described the board chair as “first among equals.” The chair is a steward-leader to the board, drawing out individual board members, building trust, steering the board away from individual agendas and holding the board accountable for acting consistently with the ways in which it has agreed to act (Keith, 2017). The chair serves the board, helping the board do its job, a function that’s incompatible with the chair being the CEO.

Recruiting steward-leaders

If a board wants to develop its capacity as steward-leader, a way to do this is to develop a board consistent with this orientation. Many postings for boards of directors circulated by SIRC that I have read already identify many of the characteristics that contribute to the effective steward-leader board team. For example, different backgrounds and fields of expertise, diversity of ethnicity, gender, location or age, and a passion for the mission and values of the organization.

Man leads meeting in a boardroomBoards also want to recruit members who understand that governance is a collective enterprise. Board members need to understand that being part of a collective enterprise requires a commitment to being part of a steward-leader team. Individuals accustomed to making independent and quick decisions may not be a good fit. That said, someone willing to be a team player can also be sufficiently independent in their thinking and have the moral courage to speak up when necessary.

The work of listening, conceptualizing and developing foresight calls for individuals who can also think in systems, are sufficiently patient with the ambiguity in complex, organization-wide issues, and appreciate that the role of governing is distinct from the role of managing. Boards shouldn’t downplay the time required. Holding the organization in trust is a serious responsibility and anyone contemplating serving on a board should know if it requires a major time commitment.

Parting thoughts

I can imagine Robert Greenleaf looking at Canadian sport and observing that boards must look beyond simply performing duties. Instead, boards must provide true leadership. They must define where the organization needs to go, whom to serve and how the lives of those served, including the Canadian public, will be better because the organization exists. A steward-leader board can realize this possibility.

“They [people] trust you because you are serving selflessly as the leader, not self-serving….”

Colin Powell, 65th U.S. Secretary of State (the first African-American appointed to that high-ranking position) and Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989 to 1993)

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