Most Canadians still associate university athletic scholarships with schools in the United States, where campus sports are not only a huge matter of pride, but big business as well.
But the university sports landscape in Canada has changed rapidly in the past 20 years, to the point where a good high-school athlete can find appealing options north of the border.
In fact, better than half of all varsity athletes at Canadian schools are receiving some form of financial aid tied to their participation in sports this school year, experts say. That's quite a change from the 1990s, when most schools in Canada offered little or nothing.
"It is a common misconception that athletes need to go south of the border to receive athletic scholarships," said Marg McGregor, executive director of Canadian Interuniversity Sport. "That's not the case. We're very proud of the amount of financial support students in Canada get to pursue their goals in the classroom and the playing fields."
While scholarship amounts vary from school to school and from sport to sport, the CIS permits universities to give funds equal to tuition and mandatory fees as long as recipients keep at least a 65-per-cent grade average. Incoming students who achieved an 80-per-cent average in high school are eligible to receive funds at the start of their first year of university. So along with hiring good coaches and making sure facilities are up to snuff, schools are also in the business of trying to raise money to offer financial help.
"I think (scholarships) are very much related to wanting to be part of high-performance sport delivery in Canada," said University of Regina athletic director Dick White, whose school contributes about half a million dollars to athletic scholarships each year.
"It's tough to expect student athletes to be full-time students, to train at a high level, to travel and devote the amount of time they do. They can't hold part-time jobs. And the percentage of undergraduates at university who work is extremely high. (Scholarships) make it viable for student athletes to stay in Canada and pursue high performance sport in conjunction with getting a university education."
Though athletic scholarships are available across Canada, they have evolved more quickly in some parts of the country than in others. Schools in Western and Atlantic Canada have been the most aggressive in providing funding; the largest athletic scholarship contributions come from outside Ontario and Quebec, according to CIS data from 2005-06.
Eight universities that school year provided more than $250,000 in athletic scholarships. The list includes Acadia, Dalhousie, Saint Mary's, St. Francis Xavier and the universities of Alberta, Calgary and Regina.
As with many issues in Canada, geography plays a role in how scholarships are awarded. In the West, where schools are great distances apart, universities have tended to put resources into fewer teams with an emphasis on high performance.
"In the West it's schools in smaller towns or one school per city, except in Vancouver," said Bob Philip, athletic director at the University of British Columbia. "In Ontario it's different because there are so many universities bumping into each other. In the West the investment in varsity athletic programs has been huge because of the travel, and it began with that."
In Atlantic Canada, where a large number of universities exist among a relatively small population, athletic scholarships were considered a necessity to help schools compete at a national level, especially in a part of the country where tuition is high.
"When you consider the demographics in this area combined with the number of universities … just look at the number of schools competing in the same sports," said Saint Mary's athletic director David Murphy. "We don't have that many people here, so the only way we could recruit was with athletic scholarships."
Ontario and Quebec have been slower to offer scholarships, although that is changing quickly. Ontario, home to more CIS schools than any other province, still limits scholarships to $3,500 per year. But for the first time this fall, schools have been allowed to offer them to first-year students who earn at least an 80-per-cent average in high school.
In the past, Ontario had refused to cross that bridge, preferring high school students to choose universities based solely on academic factors. In reality, however, athletics, with or without scholarships, have for years had a significant influence on school choices. Furthermore, without being able to promise scholarships to first-year students, Ontario schools found themselves at a disadvantage when it came to recruiting.
"(Ontario schools) found that if they wanted to compete in the CIS and keep kids from going elsewhere in Canada, they had to offer scholarships," said Peter Baxter, athletic director at Wilfrid Laurier University. "A lot of (Ontario) schools had to change their view."
Even at a maximum of $3,500 a year, which amounts to little more than 50 per cent of yearly tuition at most Ontario schools, scholarships can make a big difference in the lives of student athletes.
"During the season I don't have to work. That's where it helps out the most," said fourth-year Carleton University men's soccer player Roberto Gutierrez. "I can afford to take from late September until November without having to work. With classes and practices and travelling I can't keep up a job."
He added: "The financial aid helps cover that period when I'm not working, helps pay for things like books for class. Even when you're working in the summer, knowing you've got that cushion coming makes things a lot more enjoyable."
Many view Ontario's decision to offer scholarships more aggressively as a true watershed in Canada. In fact, the province's opposition to them had at one point threatened to split the CIS.
The concern in Ontario, and some other corners of Canada, was that such scholarships would lead down a slippery slope to quasi-professional sports and campuses full of athletes who are students in name only. That has certainly been the case at some U.S. schools, where athlete graduation rates — particularly in the big-money sports such as men's basketball and football — are pathetic.
Ontario's stance softened in part because the CIS managed to establish minimum academic standards for scholarships. Also, some evidence seemed to suggest that scholarships, when tied to academic achievement, might help — not hurt — grades.
"We're in the process of doing an actual study on graduation rates among athletes," said Ms. McGregor. "The final results have not been released but early indications are that student athletes do better than the general student population, and graduation rates have not suffered (since scholarships have been increased)."
Of course the changes at Canadian schools have not come without financial costs. Funding of university athletics in Canada has always been a challenge in a system where most sports don't reap much revenue. Now, however, athletic directors have the added burden of fundraising.
"Every year we have to go out and raise $350,000, and I guess sometimes you wonder is this going to be sustainable?" said Mr. Murphy. "It's a lot of hard work, but that's our commitment to excellence and staying competitive on a national basis."