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Eve Uwayesu who is a gifted basketball player in Grade 5 had her request to play for the junior boys team at her Ottawa school denied by the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board. Photos by Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail. (Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier)
Eve Uwayesu who is a gifted basketball player in Grade 5 had her request to play for the junior boys team at her Ottawa school denied by the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board. Photos by Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail. (Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier)

Hayley Mick

Gender Equity: Ontario lets girls play on boys teams Add to ...

Soccer player Courtney Greer may have scored a game-winner for girls who want to compete on boys teams in Ontario schools, but her victory isn't sweeping the nation.

The 17-year-old Waterloo student recently forced the body that oversees high-school sports in Ontario to change its rules to permit female athletes to try out for boys teams.

Rather than inspiring similar changes across Canada, similar sports bodies in provinces including British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan say they will continue to bar girls from competing against the opposite sex.

"We're well-aware of what's been happening," said Sue Keenan, executive director of BC School Sports. "For us, the bottom line is, our focus has always been to try and get as many students involved in high-school sports as we can. So it's about participation. If students want to excel, there are other avenues for them to get that opportunity."

She and other high-school sports officials argue that the quality of girls sports could erode if the best athletes leave. And they say that even if a girl is good enough to be selected for a boys team, they shouldn't take a boy's spot, or vice-versa.

"Fair is one thing, but equity is another. If there's an opportunity for the girls to play, and they choose to take an opportunity away from a young man, is that equity?" said John Paton, executive director for the Alberta Schools' Athletic Association.

Until two weeks ago, Ontario's policy was in line with most provinces, which ban girls from playing on boys teams unless a girls team does not exist. The Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations changed its rules after its lawyer said it would lose if Greer took her case to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal.

A landmark Manitoba case from 2006 influenced the board's decision, OFSAA president Doug Gellately said. The Manitoba Human Rights Commission sided with the 17-year-old Pasternak twins who fought the Manitoba High Schools Athletic Association for the right to try out for a boys hockey team.

But that same case has inspired a different response in British Columbia, one that Keenan says should ward off human rights claims. "We've been very proactive," she said.

On the advice of legal counsel, BC School Sports added a new clause that allowed its gender equity rules to be sport-specific. Certain sports, including football, are open to having girls try out for boys teams, she said. But the provincial body for field hockey changed its rules to explicitly ban boys from trying out for girls teams, Keenan said. The rational is that girls sports need to be protected so that girls can continue to flourish.

High-school sports officials from other provinces, including Alberta and Saskatchewan, say they will maintain the status quo until an individual challenges them on their policies. Nova Scotia is reviewing its gender equity policy, which will be released later this year.

The divided national response doesn't surprise Sarah Lugtig, a lawyer with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission who worked on the Pasternak case.

"These decisions are telling organizations that if they have this kind of rule, someone certainly could file a human rights complaint, and if they aren't able to justify the rule, they could be forced to changed it," she said.

"We know in Manitoba, at least for hockey, that they weren't able to justify it. It doesn't necessarily mean you wouldn't be able to justify it in another sport."

The MSAA fell down, she said, because it couldn't produce historical evidence to support its claims that the quality of girls-only hockey would be eroded if some players were allowed to compete with the boys.

(MSAA executive director Morris Glimcher says many of his fears haven't played out since the ruling. Only a handful of girls have asked to play on boys teams, and no boys have made formal requests to play on girls teams. Yet, he remains concerned participation rates could suffer for both boys and girls. Last year, a girl switched to the boys curling team, and the girls team folded as a result, he said.)

But the continuing ban on girls playing on boys squads in some provinces frustrates those who say athletes should be allowed to play at their maximum athletic potential regardless of the gender. They say there is legal precedent, not only from the Pasternak case, but others dating back 20 years.

"I find it shocking," said Justine Blainey-Broker, whose battle to play on a boys hockey team took her to the Supreme Court of Canada. "We're talking over 20 years later and we're still having the same battle? It's scary."

In 1986, Justine Blainey, then a teenage hockey star, won a civil suit in provincial court after the Ontario Hockey Association refused to permit her to play in Toronto's top boys hockey league after she earned a spot on a team.

The association sought leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, but the application was dismissed.

In the early 1990s, the Ontario Human Rights Commission ruled against the Ontario Soccer Association, which had threatened to disqualify a Belleville boys soccer team because it included two girls.

Sandra Kirby, a University of Winnipeg sociology professor and an expert witness in the Manitoba case, said gender equity isn't just giving girls the opportunity to play. Girls must also have the chance to excel.

"We're so intent on giving them an equal chance to play, we forget about that other part - that sense of accomplishment that comes from sport," said Kirby, a former Olympic rower and associate vice-president of research at the U of W.

Although the Ontario changes have had a mixed response throughout the country, they are having a trickle-down effect in the province. The Ottawa-Carleton District School board is reconsidering its gender equity rules, even though elementary schools don't fall under OFSAA control.

That's welcome news for Eve Uwayesu. Three weeks ago, the Grade 5 student's request to play for the boys basketball team at her Ottawa elementary school was denied by the board, even though her coach, and boys on the team, said she would have been their best player. Instead, she was allowed to play up a level against intermediate girls in Grades 6 to 8.

That decision didn't wash with her coach, Trevor Costello, who also coaches the men's basketball team at Algonquin College. "The junior boys are closely skilled with intermediate girls, but the intermediate girls are always much bigger - two or three heads bigger than the boys. Height makes a big difference at this age."

Eve's junior girls team wound up winning 38-0 in the final of the junior girls city-wide tournament. She scored 28 points.

She also played for the intermediate girls, although she said it wasn't as fun as it would have been playing with the boys in her grade.

She hopes things will be different next season, thanks to a soccer player from Waterloo.

"If they let her play [on a boys team] why can't they let me play?" she said.

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