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Not many Canadians know there is anything as definable as a “sport system” in Canada, so few are aware that “English and French do not enjoy the same status in the Canadian sport system.”

This unfair state was the gist in a recent reiteration of Dyane Adam, the federal government’s commissioner of official languages, reporting on the failure of Sport Canada – i.e., the federal government’s directorate for sport – to “eliminate the barriers to the participation of francophones in high performance sport.”

Three years ago, the commission gave Sport Canada 15 recommendations for clearing these “barriers.” It has achieved only three of them. It has been trying, but too slowly, and ineffectually.

Adam says: “This slowness and the lack of a consistent approach in addressing the issues has a direct impact on our athletes who are forced to adapt to the linguistic shortcomings of the sport system.”

And so the commissioner has issued a stern command. By this time next year, Sport Canada “must publish an independent study on francophone participation in all sports and identify the conditions conducive to equal access to high performance sports for both official language groups. The study should also examine the impact that the location of high performance training centres may have on this participation.”

And Adam warns the commission “will continue to monitor developments in this matter very closely over the coming months.”

So there it is – a wad of demands, based on the official status of French and English and the imperative of fairness for French-speaking athletes, coaches and officials.

Since this ultimatum to the federal sport bureaucracy and its scores of client associations, much dissatisfaction has been aired about the sad state of high performance sport levels in Canada. Much of this is fostered by the Coaching Association of Canada (founded 33 years ago to make coaching a career profession with high standards). Some comes from present or recent coaches of “national” teams.

Often these complainers use irony. Consider the enthusiasm across the land at Vancouver playing host to the Winter Olympic Games in 2010. This will cost taxpayers billions – huge spending in contrast to the chronic skimpiness of funding for our athletes and teams in most of the high-performance international competitions.

Looking backwards, since the award of the Summer Olympics of 1976 to Montreal, the federal government has put up billions to aid cities and provinces in hosting the Olympic, Pan-Am, and Commonwealth Games, whereas athletes and coaches have had a relative dribble of federal funding. By my crude reckoning, Ottawa, Quebec and Montreal have put in over $15 billion to the ’76 Olympics. This is about five times what the three levels of government in Canada have provided in funds and services to the support of high-level coaches and athletes since former Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau grabbed the Olympic torch three decades ago.

French-speaking athletes (unilingual or bilingual) should be able to get coaching, management and services like physiotherapy in their own language – but only so long as this comes at a cost which is reasonable within each sport. All but a few of the 100 or so national sport associations are chronically short of money. Theirs is a shoestring existence, despite a variety of grants, subsidies, etc. which they are given variously by federal, provincial and municipal governments (notably in facilities).

The path from neophyte to skilled athlete, ready for medal-chasing at an Olympics, begins in a neighbourhood and with facilities and organizations there. Across Canada, including Quebec, there is a quirky diversity and uneven distribution of aspirants and ongoing enthusiasm of communities and parents. (In recent years, Quebec has moved to the front of the provincial pack at the Canada Games and in backing sport.)

Those who run hockey, track, swimming, basketball, soccer, skiing, tennis, etc. are far more zealous for their sport than for all sports but are rarely into it for jobs for themselves. And year after year they are short of money, especially for the most costly, i.e., continuous nurture of top athletes and the best coaches.

In Canada today we have at least 90 federated sport associations raising and spending money. Most of them get annual grants from Sport Canada, and their provincial arms almost always get some backing from their provincial government. But few of the associations have money to spare, say for a totally bilingual association, even at the national level.

Adam’s recent statement underlines the standard which the language commission requires. The ratio of French-speaking athletes should match the proportion of French speakers in the country (about 23%).

She said: “High performance athletes whose preferred language is French were already underrepresented in 2000 (18%) in all sport disciplines in proportion to the representation of both official language groups in the country. Data collected this year show that their representation is somewhat lower today (17.3%).”

It seems bureaucratic bullheadedness to force hard-up groups to make such a match of participants and language. Remember that sport leaders (mostly volunteers) are also under pressure by federal agencies to meet quota shares of aboriginal and handicapped athletes. Such are the quid-pro-quos for federal backing, niggardly though it may be.

In short, as coaches and managers find and groom athletes and teams for international competition, they must keep in mind the Charter of Rights. As for our politicians and their officials, they seem sure to continue big spending for hosting grand, costly events at which our athletes take few prizes, in large part because they have been groomed in a cheap, nit-picking system.
The Toronto Sun
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