With the NHL and CFL dragging their feet on the issue of concussions, and no action on the government's part after the Prime Minister brought up the topic with cabinet ministers a year ago, the governor-general has decided to go it alone.
David Johnston will hold a one-day forum titled "We Can Do Better" at Rideau Hall to address rising public concern over the long-lasting effects of sport concussions.
"The medical evidence has become increasingly powerful that we have a problem," Mr. Johnston says.
"The medical evidence is equally powerful that we can do better, with awareness and national strategies to make the game safer."
The conference, on Dec. 6, will emphasize that head trauma can affect more than just pro athletes. It will bring together athletes from a wide variety of disciplines – professional hockey and football, Olympians, amateurs – as well as medical experts such as Dr. Charles Tator of the Canadian Concussion Centre at Toronto Western Hospital.
Hockey Hall of Famer Eric Lindros, whose career was cut short by concussion, will sit on a panel, as will Rosie MacLennan, two-time Olympic gold medalist on the trampoline.
Ken Dryden, also a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, a former federal cabinet minister and a long-time advocate for safety in sports, will give the keynote address.
Mr. Dryden hopes that the public will come to realize that concussions are not just a hockey issue in Canada or a football issue in the United States.
"Once they are there," he says, "people will say, 'This is about blows to the head,' whether it happens when you're diving into a pool of water or you're getting your head up into the glass."
The proposed gathering had been off-and-on over the past five years as attempts were made to include such key stakeholders as the NHL, the CFL, the various players' associations, Hockey Canada and the International Ice Hockey Federation. While some parties were open to participating, others were not, so Rideau Hall decided to forge ahead without them.
Mr. Johnston believes the five-year delay has its upside – knowledge on head trauma has grown exponentially over this time, as has public awareness and concern.
"We're dealing with the most precious relationship one can have, parent and child, and we want not only what's best for our children and grandchildren but we want to mitigate risk while at the same time ensuring that they can have healthy lives in sport," Mr. Johnston says.
Mr. Johnston, the father of five daughters all active in sports, was a prominent athlete in his prime. As a youth growing up in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., he excelled in baseball, football and hockey. He played on the same teams as NHL legends Phil and Tony Esposito and went on to Harvard University, where he was twice an All-American and was later chosen one of the top 50 players in the Eastern College Athletic Conference. He also played quarterback for the Harvard football team.
(Movie buffs might recall Love Story, a 1970 novel by Erich Segal, that later became a blockbuster movie starring Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw. Segal, a Harvard professor, and Johnston used to run together along the Charles River. One of the book's main characters is handsome Davey Johnston, captain of the hockey team.)
The year Mr. Johnston turned 16 he suffered three concussions in succession, two in football and then one when hockey season started up. The family doctor said he could only return to the ice if he wore a helmet. The boy said he'd be laughed at if he did, but given no alternative he donned the required helmet – and answered the laughter by being as tenacious in the corners as any player in the league.
Those who would dismiss him as a do-gooder who wants to remove all physical play from sport get a quick reprimand. "First," he says, "I love sport myself, so I come at it with a passion. I love competitive sports and played in three sports at the competitive level. Secondly, we're not talking here so much about expertise in the game, whether it be hockey, football or baseball. We're talking about promotion of healthy living for our children. And healthy living includes physical activity. One of the finest forms of physical activity is sport, especially competitive sport.
"So how do we as a society organize ourselves so that our kids can play and play well and be safe? And when we speak of professional sport, I think that applies as well. If we are going to ask people to perform in this form of entertainment, we want to be sure that there is an understanding of risk and to mitigate those risks as best we can."
Research in recent years has shown that repeated hits to the head can be far more devastating in later life than they were in the game in which the blows happened. Mental illness, alcoholism, physical abuse and even suicide have been traced back to earlier head trauma. Medical analysis has shown that a condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has been found in the brains of former athletes who suffered multiple blows to the head.
A Swedish study that covered four decades and more than 100,000 people who had suffered a single head injury found the once-injured, compared to an uninjured sibling, were more likely to be on medical disability, more likely to have sought mental-health care and less likely to have completed high school.
The Economist magazine recently asked the question that will have to be asked Dec. 6 at Rideau Hall: "… is it safe to play a game whose rules require people to slam into each other? As understanding grows of what happens in the brain when collision takes place, the answer seems certain to be 'No.'"
Mr. Johnston is a firm believer that all games can be made safer and his favourite game, hockey, can remain a tough, physical sport without head shots or fighting.
"It's so simple," he says. "You say, 'Why hasn't it been done?' We make changes all the time to improve our quality of life. We recycle waste, we wear seatbelts in our cars, we no longer smoke in great numbers. We're smart people. We change what we do when we have clear evidence that our behaviours are hurting us."
Dr. Tator says the Rideau Hall forum has a direct connection to policy. When Justin Trudeau took office more than a year ago, Dr. Tator says, "he wrote letters to his Minister of Health and his Minister of Sports to tell them he wanted something done about concussions. And now our country's Governor-General is also playing an important role in holding a conference about concussions.
"All parents, players, coaches and sports administrators have to wake up to the fact that you only get one brain, and it needs to be carefully protected, especially in kids and adolescents. We have to put more brain power and resources into preventing concussions and properly managing those that will still occur. So thank you Prime Minister and Governor-General for waving the red flag!"
"The role of this office," Mr. Johnston says, "is to try to connect, honour and inspire Canadians. And to try to do that by getting at fundamental values that make society a good one. When you look at the fundamental value of people participating in a sport, you want to encourage it and you want to make sure it is as healthy and safe as can be. That's why we're interested."
In his recent book, The Idea of Canada: Letters to a Nation, Mr. Johnston pens one of his letters to his old Harvard hockey coach, former NHL star Ralph (Cooney) Weiland.
"I'm concerned about hockey played at all levels," writes the 28th Governor-General of Canada, "by all ages, by boys and girls, men and women, and I'm concerned about what our acceptance of fighting and head shots says to all those who play the game. Hockey is our national sport, because we've always thought of it as embodying qualities that we possess and hold dear: toughness, tenacity and teamwork. How can we square those virtues with fighting and goon tactics? We can't. It's impossible."