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Ryerson University student Obaid-Ullah Aleem, is photographed in a sports field near the Ryerson Community School, on June 4 2020. Since 2015, Aleem and his friends would play cricket on the field, but with physical distancing rules in effect, Aleem was worried about bringing the coronavirus home, or that he and his friends would be ticketed for playing cricket.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The photo, of a Toronto park with grass so green it looked colour-corrected, popped up in the group chat of two dozen cricket-loving friends with a directive from one of the young men: “Be at the field 6 pm.”

For a few years, the friends, many of whom lived in a nearby housing project, had gathered in the park twice a week from May to August to play cricket, but physical-distancing measures in the wake of COVID-19 had delayed and threatened to cancel their season. Now, it seemed, someone was trying to organize a game, restrictions be damned.

Another member of the group asked whether he was serious.

“Haha I wish,” he replied. “They locked the entrances.”

“Yo white mans r playing ball,” someone piped up, pressing a collective bruise. This group was composed of many first- or second-generation Canadians from places like Bangladesh, Pakistan and Somalia. All were passionate about a sport whose local popularity was driven by immigrants.

COVID-19 has had an outsized effect on Canada’s marginalized populations, infecting immigrants, racialized populations and low-income earners more often than others. And now, after three months of lockdown, those same populations are also feeling the loss of leisure most acutely.

The closing of recreational facilities across Canada and policing of spaces such as basketball courts and sports fields by bylaw officers has been a major blow to the people who rely on them most – the ones without backyards, summer cottages or tennis club memberships. Service providers and those who research the socio-cultural dimensions of sport stress that the impact goes far beyond mere restlessness – there could be serious long-term effects on mental health and safety and a lost sense of community that should be weighed against the COVID-19 risk.

“You live in a high-density neighbourhood, high-rise tower, no balcony, no yard to go to and if you can go there, there’s concerns about physical distancing," says Simon Barrick, a PhD candidate at the University of Calgary who is studying race, ethnicity and sport in Canada. “Forcing people to stay indoors for long periods of time definitely creates health consequences, whether that’s physical, mental or emotional health.”

Obaid-Ullah Aleem, 18, one of the cricket players in the group chat, had discussed with his friends the possibility of using antiseptic to wipe down the ball between plays. Ultimately, they abandoned plans to play. Earlier in the spring, bylaw officers in Brampton, west of Toronto, issued 11 fines of $880 to a group of men of South Asian descent for playing cricket in a park.

“The fine part weighs a lot as I don’t want to get a meaningless fine for playing a sport,” Mr. Aleem said. “If golf courses are open, then they shouldn’t be fining people for playing sports [because] golf is a sport, too.”

In Toronto, $402,275 of fines have been issued to those who have contravened rules put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19 – half were for use of park amenities, such as exercise equipment, sports fields or courts.

The first phase of Ontario’s gradual reopening included golf courses and tennis courts, sports that “generally tend to skew more upper class, they’re predominantly white,” says Mary Louise Adams, a professor of kinesiology and health studies at Queen’s University.

“Who are the advocates for different kinds of facilities, and do all facilities in all neighbourhoods have the same kind of clout?” she asked.

After Kelly-Ann Williams saw the news about which sport facilities would open first in Ontario, she shared her amused reaction with another friend, who also works in the community sector.

“We were having this conversation, you know, it’s very interesting that golf courses and those types of sports have opened up, that they have the priority,” said Ms. Williams, the executive director of the Erin Mills Youth Centre in Mississauga, home to a popular multi-use court that draws basketball-obsessed youth from three nearby high-rises and townhouses.

The court has been closed off for months, and Ms. Williams says she worries about how youth who usually spend every day of the spring and summer there will cope.

It has become a haven where community members – most of whom are Black – can hang out without feeling like they are under surveillance. Part of the drive to build the court (which was previously a parking lot) was spurred by youth complaining that they felt harassed by police at city-run courts, or that they had to spend all their money from part-time jobs to play ball at private gyms or take transit to courts across town.

The Broadway Neighbourhood Centre, a non-profit centre in inner-city Winnipeg, was forced to close its doors due to COVID-19 in mid-March, shutting out the dozens of youth who were regulars. The centre, which has one of the only green spaces in the area, a skate park and a wading pool, serves a large Indigenous population, as well as many newcomers and families experiencing poverty, program manager Jackie Drapeau says.

While the Manitoba government permitted many recreational facilities, restaurants and businesses to reopen in some capacity in early June, the Broadway Neighbourhood Centre won’t be reopening till July and some of the most anticipated indoor activities, such as basketball, will still be restricted.

Ms. Drapeau says she often worries about the children living in foster care who were regulars at the centre, but whom she hasn’t seen in months.

“That’s the hard part,” she said. “We worked with a lot of them for a number of years and know that some of their housing situations might not be the healthiest.”

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