Federal budget undermines Indigenous self-determination in sport programs

Tiana Schocko, from Peshawbestown, Mich., and of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa tribe, competes in the youth division of the 22nd Annual World Championship Hoop Dance Contest Sunday, Feb. 12, 2012, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Federal budget undermines Indigenous self-determination in sport programs

The Canadian federal government has announced it is setting aside almost $50 million over five years with $9.5 million per year for sport for social development programs in Indigenous communities, notably by scaling-up Right To Play’s programming.

That is, instead of clearly allocating money to the Aboriginal Sport Circle, an Indigenous-led organization in Canada, the federal government has identified the programs offered by Right To Play, an international, non-Indigenous, non-profit organization, as a model for programming and the only named organization in this category in the 2018 federal budget.

Five of the 94 Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada — which seek to redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation — relate to sport.

Specifically, they call upon the government of Canada to ensure that sport policies, programs and initiatives are inclusive of Indigenous peoples. While we support the Canadian government’s commitment to funding Indigenous sports, we believe that the funds should be given to the Aboriginal Sport Circle if the government is serious about achieving reconciliation.

Sport for development

Right to Play has delivered sport for development programming in the Global South since 2000. The group works in more than 20 countries around the world with a goal of using the “transformative power of sport to empower children facing adversity.”

Recently, Right to Play started offering a program in Indigenous communities in Canada: Promoting Life-Skills in Aboriginal Youth (PLAY). PLAY is offered in 85 First Nations communities and in urban Indigenous settings and is designed to “enhance educational outcomes, improve peer-to-peer relationships, increase employability and improve physical and mental health amongst Aboriginal children and youth.”

The recently announced funds could enable Right To Play to expand this program.

Certainly, Indigenous youth across Canada face racism and discrimination. This systemic racism affects both education opportunities and access to health care, resulting in lower education and health outcomes than non-Indigenous peoples.

The use of sport to obtain social development outcomes is known as sport for development. Many people believe that sport can foster good leadership, make young people better students and improve health.

However, numerous researchers have argued that sport for development initiatives can reinforce colonial structures and fail to account for differences in local cultures, contexts and customs, especially when delivered by outside organizations.

Others argue that such programs are merely band-aid solutions to complex social problems — for example, in the case of Indigenous communities, the chronic underfunding of education and health care. As a result, sport for development may not deliver on its promises.

While it’s hard to find fault with adorable images of sweaty children chasing soccer balls, are larger social issues actually addressed through participation in Right To Play’s programs?

Partnership is not ownership

Right To Play claims to be inclusive and to offer programs that are respectful of Indigenous peoples’ lives. The programs are said to be delivered in partnership with Indigenous communities. Right To Play could, theoretically, even attempt to partner with the Aboriginal Sport Circle in its expanded program implementation.

But partnership is not the same as ownership. Since 2016, Canada has been a full supporter of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which states:

“Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development, their internal and local affairs, as well as ways and means for financing their autonomous functions.”

As sport can play an important role in these areas of development in Indigenous communities, it is crucial that the Canadian government recognizes Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination within sport for development.

Programs similar to Right to Play’s are already being offered to Indigenous communities across Canada by the Aboriginal Sport Circle and its provincial and territorial partners, though they receive only a fraction of the funding of Right to Play.

The Aboriginal Sport Circle received $800,000 for 2017-2018 from Sport Canada to offer similar programs and to support other initiatives throughout Canada. On the other hand, Right To Play’s programs received $1.5 million over four years from the Ontario government — and an additional $2 million from private sponsors — to offer programming in Ontario alone.

Aboriginal Sport Circle

Established in 1995 by Rick Brant and Olympic gold medallist Alwyn Morris, the Aboriginal Sport Circle’s vision includes the creation of national systems that “systemically include Aboriginal people and organizations in strategies, initiatives, programs and services for improved outcomes for all Canadians.”

Its goal is to do this through properly funded and resourced sport, physical activity and recreation systems “that are culturally appropriate and enable Aboriginal people to achieve success from playground to podium.”

The Aboriginal Sport Circle and its regional partners appear to be the logical organization to make decisions about the ways in which federal - and private - money could be best spent to benefit Indigenous youth in Canada.

While we applaud Right to Play’s efforts to engage with marginalized communities within Canada, in addition to those in the Global South, and we acknowledge that it has the support of some Indigenous leaders, we question if it is the best and most appropriate delivery agent.

When the Government of Canada announced its funding for the Aboriginal Sport Circle, it claimed to be “determined to make a real difference in the lives of Indigenous people by supporting self-determination through reconciliation.”

We believe the federal government’s intention to fund Right To Play’s programs is contrary to this goal. If the federal government is serious about reconciliation, it needs to fund Indigenous-led organizations in Canada instead of making enormous investments in an international non-profit organization’s programs.

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