Athletics and Activism, A Series -Part 1: Truth and Reconciliation

Prelude

The community nature of sports gives athletes a unique position of influence in society and a platform that can be a powerful tool to spur social change –even fringe Canadian university sports can have many supporters. There are numerous examples throughout history where athletes chose to use their platforms to fight for social justice. Billy Jean King worked through her most competitive years under much criticism to lead unionizing efforts and eventually the formation of the Women’s Tennis Association. This dramatically furthered pay equality for women in tennis and had a positive effect on efforts being led in other sports as well. Muhammad Ali gave up years of his prime to protest the unjust Vietnam war, and used those years to speak about his opposition to the war. More recently, a wildcat strike in 2020 by NBA players put pressure on team owners to ”take meaningful political action towards ending police brutality and the disproportionate use of deadly force by cops against Black men and women.” It’s likely this strike could have led to even greater positive change if Barack Obama had not convinced the players to ease off, but it still gave momentum to Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police movements across North America. The US Women’s soccer team managed to win true equal pay after years of being in the public spotlight. During those years, their most outspoken player, Megan Rapinoe, drew criticism from Donald Trump. Rapinoe has also been an outspoken advocate of trans athlete inclusion in sports, no doubt inspiring countless other athletes to read about this topic and fight for trans rights.

The fact that high-profile politicians feel threatened by athlete activism makes it very clear that sports can be a strong mechanism for change, and we should make use of that. Countries and institutions fund sports to unify large segments of the population, but they know that this can also be turned to work against them, which is why administrators try so hard to perpetuate the idea that sports are some sort of apolitical arena even though they are not. Regulations that suppress athlete expression like the Olympic Committee’s Rule 50 reinforce the political status quo –that is a political stance. Our society is currently dealing with multiple intersecting crises, so we thought this would be a good time to stage a series that details some of the most pressing issues currently facing athletes in Canada and begin a discussion on meaningful actions that athletes can take to further positive change in these areas. With a larger platform comes a greater responsibility for the state of affairs. It’s important to note that achieving meaningful change requires a group effort –one that especially prioritizes the voices of people who come from historically marginalized groups. We have two goals that we hope result from this series:

  1. Get athletes thinking about how participating in sports can actually work against the causes that athletes individually support, and how athletes can work together to change this. 
  2. Communicate the scale of some of the most pressing issues we face today and emphasize that it will take a combined effort from people in all facets of society using all the available tools they have to make the necessary changes. For athletes, these tools are low-risk in comparison to the actions most others can take and their scope of influence can be much larger.

Truth and Reconciliation

About two weeks ago we observed the second annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. A statutory holiday established in 2021 to “honour the children who never returned home and Survivors of residential schools, as well as their families and communities.” Orange Shirt Day has been observed by many Indigenous nations since 2013 and was only recently elevated to a Canadian statutory holiday after over 1000 gravesites were discovered using ground penetrating radar technology at the Kamloops, Marieval, and St. Eugene’s residential schools by the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc, Cowessess, and Ktunaxa First Nations, respectively. It’s unfortunate that it took this amount of evidence to establish a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had already documented 3,200 confirmed deaths at residential schools in their 2015 report while noting the number was an undercount due to the significant limitations of their death register. The commission also laid out 94 Calls to Action to account for the harm that Canada inflicts on Indigenous peoples, of which just 13 have been completed and 19 have not even been started. The Canadian government even established a commission (The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples) that published a similar report in 1996 and called for many of the same recommendations. In 2016, the government launched the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls which published a final report in 2019 along with 231 calls to justice and stated that “information and testimonies collected by the National Inquiry provide serious reasons to believe that Canada’s past and current policies, omissions, and actions towards First Nations Peoples, Inuit and Métis amount to genocide.” A vast amount of work remains to discontinue the harm that Canadian colonialism continues to cause. The small improvements we have seen took significant effort on the part of Indigenous peoples. Some have died defending their land, many more have died or been imprisoned because they are subjected to such harsh treatment and living conditions by our governments. It seems important then to talk about how we can quicken the path to genuine reconciliation.

As with many holidays, athletics teams at the professional, junior, and university level took the opportunity to show their support by wearing commemorative gear. In this case it took the form of orange shirts and logos designed by Indigenous artists. While actions like this can help increase awareness for certain causes, they primarily serve as a performative act that institutions can use to co-opt a cause in a way that boosts their public image. Some of these institutions simultaneously harm the very causes they claim to support. The most damning evidence of this phenomenon was Coastal Gaslink posting about “creating spaces for Indigenous voices” while beginning to drill a natural gas pipeline underneath the Wedzin Kwa, a sacred Wet’suwet’en waterway that is a key salmon migration route. Coastal GasLink has been issued multiple fines, orders, and warnings by British Columbia’s Environmental Assessment Office during the course of the pipeline project and has not received consent from Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. Instead, the project has been made possible through violent RCMP raids in 2019, 2020, and 2021. The RCMP even created a special unit called the Community-Industry Response Group (CIRG) to enforce the Coastal GasLink pipeline project as well as other resource extraction projects such as Trans Mountain’s oil pipeline expansion (which also carries a violent history of repression against Indigenous peoples). It’s clear Coastal GasLink does not value reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. Neither does the Canadian government, as Trans Mountain is a Canadian crown corporation (a form of government-owned enterprise that is accountable to the ruling political party) and it is through the RCMP and other government police forces that these resource extraction projects are made possible.

This ability for businesses and government institutions to performatively support Indigenous reconciliation while putting vast resources towards projects that harm Indigenous communities shows that people who care about this issue must do more than wear an orange shirt to raise awareness. In school sports news releases after the Sled Dog Invitational in Saskatoon this year, where Cross Country teams wore orange singlets during competition, media departments at the Universities of Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Calgary did not even mention the significance of the orange singlets as they had done in previous years. A few teams from the school that I attend, McMaster, posted to their social media accounts in support of the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation. This may show that the teams support Indigenous rights, but it also helps enhance the image of the university. Meanwhile, McMaster University’s administration refuses to divest from fossil fuel companies. Although the action taken by athletes was well-meaning, it partially worked to direct attention away from the university administration’s continued financing of companies that harm the environment and violate Indigenous land claims by conducting resource extraction projects. 

To discuss how athletes can wear orange without helping institutions whose interests do not align with Indigenous reconciliation, we must first explore some of the main reasons athletics are funded. In the case of countries, athletics provides a vehicle for national unification while showcasing dominance on a global stage. In the case of universities, athletics provides an outlet for the university community to rally for while acting as a marketing mechanism that helps the university administration draw more students and sponsors. In the case of professional clubs, investors can make a lot of money from the work athletes do. Many athletes see sport as an individual (or team) pursuit to improve –and it is. But without acknowledging our function to the countries, institutions, and clubs we represent, we can find ourselves aiding institutions that are perpetuating harm (I have been guilty of this). This is most apparent during the Olympic Games, where public funds are routinely spent on security and land developers to push vulnerable people out of host cities instead of using the funds to build public infrastructure that helps the community. In the case of the Vancouver Olympics this happened despite protests about how The Games were set to take place on unceded Indigneous territory. When athletes compete in The Games it reinforces the idea that spending money in this way is acceptable and directs attention away from the harm that is caused. More generally, any time an athlete competes under the Canadian flag without protest they are reinforcing the idea that this country is one worth representing, which improves its image internationally. On a smaller scale the same goes for universities. So when athletes representing a country or university decide to support a cause, like wearing orange shirts for the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, it is easy for the community to assume the country or university also does, even if it does not. Recognizing that athletes are exploited to improve the public image of the institution they represent is the first step towards avoiding doing so for institutions that are causing harm.

What Can Be Done?

There are many community or union working groups that work to materially support the lives of local Indigenous communities, and I encourage people to get involved in those, but let’s talk about things that athletes can do during the course of their normal activities.

As previously discussed, the platforms that come with being an athlete are huge opportunities to help social movements push for change. If we truly support reconciliation with the Indigenous peoples whose land we occupy, a just course of action would be to refrain from doing things that enhance the image of any institution perpetuating harm toward Indigenous groups. In the case of competing for a University like McMaster, this could include wearing orange gear while covering the McMaster logo during competition to signify that the university harms Indigenous communities by continuing to invest in fossil fuel companies and so is not worth representing. In the case of competing for Canada, our country only exists because of genocide that was carried out against the numerous Indigenous nations whose land we currently occupy. The conditions created from this genocide have also never been fixed. The violent repression against Indigenous land defenders to destroy more of their territory and build pipelines is one example that illustrates this. We also refuse to direct enough funding towards alleviating drinking water advisories, and we have prisons with disproportionately high Indigenous representation as a result of the unjust living conditions they are subjected to. It seems necessary then for Canadians to stage some sort of protest if they are to compete for a national team, as not doing so serves to promote the status quo conditions outlined above. This is especially true for individuals who come from privileged backgrounds as they do not have much to risk. Any risk a protest action carries is also minimized when more people get involved. It would be great to see members of different national teams working together and taking action by covering the Canadian flag on competition uniforms until our government fulfills all 94 calls to action in the Truth and Reconciliation report and commits to Land Back policies that give Indigenous groups authority over any new developments or resource extraction projects (you can read more about those here). It is important to discuss the potential risks of any action before doing it, but the risks involved with covering up a logo are minimal. I’m sure this sort of action would draw criticism from many citizens at first, but any difficulties athletes may experience from participating will definitely pale in comparison to the reality that Indigneous peoples living in so-called Canada face everyday.

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Notable Replies

  1. Nice one, Evan!

    In this age of corporate “woke-washing” and national “sports-washing”, athletes for progressive social change need to think more about organizing to subvert, rather than allowing themselves to be implicated in, the “messaging” of their universities and governments.

    Student-athletes, when your university engages in this kind of behaviour-- and they all do to one extent or another-- take it as an opportunity to provoke a deeper, more critical discussion of the larger issue in question within your sport and larger school community. Write an article for your school paper (they are always looking for content!). Encourage your athlete council (if you have one at your school) to speak out and take a position on issues of national importance when the opportunity presents itself. There are many ways to agitate for change, and your status as athletes makes what you say newsworthy.

    Whether you realize it or not, YOU are marketing and promotional tools for your schools. Do you think they pay all that scarce money on varsity sports simply because they want you all to have fun!?

    As shitty as it probably feels, you’re all grown-ups now, living in treacherous times. Learn to use your voices, intellects, and hearts now, while you have the time and energy, to call out dangerous bullshit and demand a better world from those with power over your lives.

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