By Dan Plouffe & Stuart Miller-Davis
Race and income are inextricably linked factors when it comes to kids participating in sport, say industry leaders and research on the topic, and there are many intersecting challenges to tackle in order to make sport accessible to all.
Canadian studies have shown that household income is the most important predictor of whether a child will take part in organized sport. The racial income/wealth gap hasn’t been studied as extensively in Canada as elsewhere, though 2016 Census data suggests white families had 32% more wealth and roughly 20% higher income than other races.
For those who work on the ground in low-income communities, that’s no surprise.
“We see a lot of racialized, newcomer families that have arrived here within the past 3-5, or 7 years,” Sharon Jollimore says of the residents her group serves from Ottawa Community Housing neighbourhoods.
Jollimore heads the OCH Foundation’s recLINK program, which connects OCH youth to arts, sports and camp programs, and helps them overcome multiple/complex barriers to participation.
“Sport has a lot of benefits. Emotional, social, mental – beyond just the physical,” underlines Jollimore, but when recLINK first meets families, “it’s often not even front of mind.”
“Often accessing programming is secondary to things like food, shelter and clothing, and then school supplies,” she explains.
So recLINK’s first step is frequently to share their knowledge of what programs are available, and that groups like theirs can help them access funding. Then they can work to address other participation barriers – the most common being equipment, transportation, registration fees, sign-up procedures, language and childcare/support (picture a single parent with multiple children trying to bring one to their activity while juggling a minimum wage shift-work job, Jollimore illustrates as an example).
On top of working with individuals and community partners, recLINK also seeks to dismantle barriers on a system-wide basis. While it’s excellent to see many groups willing to assist low-income communities, there could be improvements to subsidy application processes, Jollimore indicates, and greater alignment and collaboration between likeminded organizations..
“As streamlined as organizations attempt to be, it still takes a level of investment in order to be able to complete a subsidy application,” she signals, noting most groups have their own criteria and procedures to adhere to.
“That’s a significant effort,” notes Jollimore, whose organization assists families to forward on required documents like tax filings to “prove I’m poor” during a vetting process, but “if I have to navigate this on my own, I’m likely going to give up.”
Well-known for the grants it provides towards sports programming, Canadian Tire Jumpstart Charities recognizes that money isn’t the only barrier children/youth from low-income families face – there are many intersecting challenges that need to be addressed.
“We’ve always tried to dismantle the systematic barriers that kids face when participating in sport, whether that be financial, gender-related or race-related,” says Marco Di Buono, assistant vice-president of programs and operations for Jumpstart, which has helped over 70,000 kids in Ottawa-Gatineau access sports opportunities since 2005.
Gender is one key related factor. A Jumpstart study produced alongside Canadian Women & Sport called “The Rally Report” illustrates a dramatic sport dropout rate for girls by late adolescence (it found that 38% of females age 16-18 participate in sport weekly compared to 56% of males).
With regards to race, the survey of over 10,000 Canadians showed that Black girls were in fact more likely than white to be involved in sport, while Indigenous girls reported the lowest participation rates at 24%. Those statistics were not specific to low-income communities, though the realities are only magnified, observers say, particularly in families with many children.
Faduma Yusuf, now the executive director for Britannia Woods Community House, notes during an episode of The House podcast that she wasn’t able to participate in many after-school activities when she was growing up in the neighbourhood.
“We have a different reality when it comes to girls from specific backgrounds and culture,” Yusuf highlights. “I had a lot of responsibilities at home.”
Jumpstart now focuses extra energy on providing grants to organizations that emphasize “gender equity, creating barrier-free participation for Indigenous, Black and youth of colour, and kids of all abilities as well,” Di Buono outlines. “It’s not just a question of gender, but increasingly there are a lot of social and demographic factors that come into play as well.”
And then of course there’s the response to the pandemic, when most programming opportunities suddenly vanished.
Jumpstart pivoted to offer play-from-home resources and a sport relief fund, while recLINK distributed at-home activity kits instead of subsidizing registration fees. Another very successful initiative for recLINK was working with re-Cycles, a volunteer-run shop, to give refurbished bikes to OCH kids, Jollimore details.
“The expression on those kids’ faces when they receive these new bikes – I mean, it just gives us the motivation to want to do it again,” she smiles, noting it’s key for service providers not to get too weighed down and overwhelmed by the magnitude of big-picture problems that need solving. “One child at a time – that’s what it takes.”
Editor’s note: In the interest of disclosure to readers – the Ottawa Community Sport Media Team (the not-for-profit organization that publishes the Ottawa Sportspage) works alongside recLINK to execute the Connecting Athletes of All Means to Paths in Sport Project. The CAMPS Project provides free sports opportunities in partner sports clubs’ programs to children/youth from low-income communities. Funding from Jumpstart also makes many of the opportunities possible. More information is available at OttawaSportsCAMPS.ca.