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Carla Qualtrough, seen in July, says there needs to be more of an effort to remind kids ‘it will be okay to sit out a game or two’ because of a head injury.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

She may have been the only cabinet minister to offer a fist pump and shout when receiving her mandate letter from then-brand new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Carla Qualtrough had just reached the part where the PM lays out his explicit expectations for each minister. As Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities – the 45-year-old B.C. lawyer is both an athlete and legally blind – she was charged with preparations for the then-coming 2016 Olympics and Paralympics, celebrate the country's athletic achievements during Canada 150, work toward passage of a Canadians with Disabilities Act, and then:

"Work with the Minister of Health and the Public Health Agency of Canada to support a national strategy to raise awareness for parents, coaches and athletes on concussion treatment."

David Johnston: Let's act on concussions and make sports safe again

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Tuesday morning at Rideau Hall, Qualtrough will be present when Governor-General David Johnston opens his "We Can Do Better" conference on concussion injuries and what can be done about them.

She will listen while well-known athletes such as Hockey Hall of Fame-member Eric Lindros and two-time Olympic gold-medalist Rosie MacLennan tell their personal stories. She will hear Dr. Charles Tator and other medical experts discuss what is known as well as what is not known. The minister will hear another Hockey Hall of Famer, Ken Dryden, deliver a keynote address in which he will ask the critical question: "Where we go from here?"

Part of where we go will involve governments. If the sports that establish the culture of their games – including the professional teams that so influence young athletes – will do little, or even deny any connection between head trauma and mental health, then effective action on this public health issue will have to come from elsewhere.

If young athletes are not demanding this, their parents most assuredly are. "It's become a consideration for parents as to whether or not they will put their kids in sports," Qualtrough says.

In 2014, an estimated 155,000 Canadians suffered concussions, some mild, some traumatic and life-affecting. Concussion awareness, like climate change, has slowly moved beyond the denial stage, though there are certainly doubters. The notion of "sucking it up and playing through it" remains prevalent in most contact sports: The injured player who continues on is admired; the injured player who stops is doubted or even dismissed.

"We don't say, 'Oh, that was really smart of Sidney Crosby to sit out four games because he's concussed,'" the minister says. "We say, 'We needed him and he scored two goals last night.' We need to shift the mentality around that. We're losing out on kids in sports. They're not playing because parents are worried about their safety."

The likes of Lindros, MacLennan and Dryden add credibility to the gathering, but so, too, does the Governor-General. Johnston was a star athlete in several sports, most notably in university as captain of the Harvard hockey team.

The minister, who has been legally blind from birth, won three bronze medals as a Paralympic swimmer, one at the 1988 Games in Seoul and two in Barcelona in 1992. As a parent of four active children between the ages of 4 to 19, Qualtrough appreciates the worry of parents. And as a former director of the Canadian Centre for Ethics and Sport and vice-president of the Americas Paralympic Committee, she has known dozens of athletes battling through concussion. Her own senior policy adviser, coincidentally, has been off work since late summer because of a concussion from an accidental fall.

"It does bring some credibility to the discussion," she says. "In the world I live in around disability sports, the people are risk-takers. If you look at a Paralympian who's a skier, they probably got injured doing high-risk [activity]. If you meet a wheelchair rugby player, they probably got injured in a diving accident. These are high-risk-taking individuals who are prone to these high-risk sports. There's a personality type, and a mentality around it that can be dangerous."

The various sports ministers – provincial and territorial as well as federal – meet every second year around the time of the Canada Games. The next scheduled meeting was for Winnipeg next summer, but Qualtrough has already held a meeting of all her counterparts, in Lethbridge, last June.

"Mainly because of this issue," she says.

The group left the Alberta city with a firm commitment to address health issues, and concussions specifically, related to sport and recreation. When the ministers do meet in Winnipeg, they hope to be closer to drafting a pan-Canadian policy that would include education and return-to-play protocols set by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

"Some really good work is being done," the minister says, "… but I don't think, with all due respect, that there is an overarching harmonization or plan. I'm hoping what will come out of this is we'll all be steering the ship in the same direction."

What she is trusting comes out of the Governor-General's gathering and the political initiatives underway is nothing short of "a culture shift in sports where it will be okay to sit out a game or two because that's the responsible thing to do, and because [that's what] good athletes do. Then our role models will start doing it, and then our kids will start doing it. And this culture shift will have happened.

"I just don't want kids to have sport experiences. I want them to have good sport experiences.

"We need to act. This is a huge deal for sport."

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