Gillian Smith is the Executive Director and CEO of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship. The ICC's study, "Playing together – new citizens, sports and belonging," was released this week and is available at www.icc-icc.ca.
With soccer's World Cup ending this week, Canadians have shared in a global celebration of sport while sitting firmly on the sidelines.
Why is it, with so much of the world's talent choosing to make Canada their home, that our country can't field a competitive team in the world's most popular sport?
This was one of the big questions we at the Institute for Canadian Citizenship wanted answered in our new study. We wanted to understand – from the point of view of Canada's new citizens – if and how new citizens participate in sports here, and whether 'playing the game' helped them become more integrated Canadians, sooner.
So we prepared a 20-minute online survey and hoped that a few hundred might reply. We were astounded when more than 4,000 new citizens responded. Clearly, they have strong and different views on life in Canada, and they're eager to share them.
What we learned should give everyone involved in Canadian sports both a reason to be optimistic and a cause for concern.
New citizens said that when they had the chance to play or watch sports in Canada they learned more about Canadian culture – our jargon and slang, how to handle conflict, acceptable gestures and the Canadian sense of humour – and were able to gain access to our vital, informal networks.
We heard that taking part in sports is a fantastic way for new Canadians to find their place in Canada because it's casual and relatively familiar. The social interaction around playing or watching sports – at any level and with anyone – is more comfortable than formal settings such as the workplace. We heard wonderful stories of new citizens making their first 'Canadian friend' while playing or watching a game. As it turns out, a sport is a sport, and a fan is a fan, no matter where in the world you come from.
But getting a chance to play isn't easy. There are far too many assumptions made in our sporting system: that everybody knows where to play, when and how to register, what it costs and even, what to wear. This simply isn't the case, particularly with newcomers.
We heard many stories of frustrated newcomer parents trying to navigate the system to register their children for a sporting activity.
One new Canadian, originally from India, recalled how hard it was to register her hockey-mad young son for power skating and then showing up for the class without the proper equipment. He was benched, and crushed by the experience.
True, this hockey-mom-in-training learned from the other hockey moms that day what to buy and where. But she wished there was a 'how-to' guide so they could have shown up on the first day, ready to play.
In turn, sports organizations would love to have these families participate in their programs and many have made strides to make information about their sport more accessible. But the information isn't reaching the audience. Canadians, then, need to re-think what, how and where we communicate about sports.
New citizens were also dismayed to find that pickup sports played widely around the world – such as basketball, soccer and even badminton – in Canada are often organized in highly regimented leagues, usually requiring facilities and insurance just to play, or are available mainly through expensive private clubs. If you asked for a shuttlecock in a Canadian public park, chances are the police would be called before a badminton birdie was proffered.
One response to the access challenge is the creation of whole new organizations: Winnipeg alone is now home to five Filipino basketball leagues. This segregation is the unintended and unnecessary result of a lack of awareness, communication and empathy on the part of many Canadians who were born here or been here for years.
Without exception, sporting authorities are keen to welcome new participants and many have made great and bold strides in their outreach efforts. But the reality for many organizations is that they operate on shoestring budgets and often rely on volunteers. So the basics of running the operation take up every moment. The challenge of branching out to attract new potential players – and the fear of unintentionally offending another community – looms large.
Successful integration doesn't rely solely on organizations and associations. It relies on the kindness and thoughtfulness of those Canadians who, seeing a new parent on the sidelines of a children's game, walk over to say hello.
Canada's bench strength has always been our ability to play together. Looking forward to the next World Cup in 2018, or to the next pickup game on the street, we need to do something that's not only beneficial to all of us, but easy for all of us: building on the strength that's already there.