By Stuart Miller-Davis
Taffe Charles didn’t realize he was on the verge of becoming the first Black head coach (and first non-white head coach) to lead a team to a W.P. McGee trophy until it was brought up to him the day before last year’s U Sports men’s basketball final.
“I didn’t become a coach to be that person,” said Charles, whose first season coaching Carleton’s men’s team was last year.
“A couple buddies of mine that are minorities mentioned how important it was (that a Black coach would lead a team to a U Sports men’s basketball championship)… I never thought about that, but maybe it does encourage somebody of colour to be able to understand that they do have the opportunity just by me being there.”
Ottawa-born Charles began his career at Carleton as a player in 1990, earning appearances on the OUA’s first and second teams during his five-year playing career before jumping into coaching. He got involved with coaching with Carleton’s women’s team, which he joined as an assistant in 1995. He moved to the men’s side in 1998, going on to win four national championships as a part of the coaching staff of Ravens legend Dave Smart. In 2007, he returned to the women’s program to become the first person of colour to lead the team. He brought the women’s program its first national championship in 2018.
Regarding his relatively rare position as a non-white head coach in the OUA, Charles said he’s always had positive experiences. That rings true for his playing days; he said he’s never felt discriminated against in the conference, whether he was on the court or the sideline.
In August, the OUA announced the Black, bi-racial and Indigenous task force to better support non-white groups of people.
The task force includes athletes, coaches and university administrators. It hosted virtual town halls throughout August to start a dialogue that continued with three more taking place during the month of September.
Charles said he felt the task force’s work was “a good first step” of gathering peoples’ experiences about ways that specific communities may have felt discrimination within university sports in Canada.
“Just being able to communicate that and hear other peoples’s stories amongst minorities and non-minorities – that was really the first step,” he said.
Charles said it’s still early and there’s lots more work to be done but he’s also keeping expectations low.
In the meantime, Charles has focussed closer to home on eroding a divide in opportunities available to people from different backgrounds. Over the summer, he teamed up with his former coaching partner Smart and other Ravens basketball alumni to form Athletes Combatting Racism (ACR), which is dedicated to exploring what can be done in support of Ottawa’s non-white populations.
“When something happens sometimes it’s overwhelming to think about all the things you can do and then do nothing,” Charles said. “So, what we’ve chosen to do is focus in-house in Ottawa and how we can help minorities in Ottawa.”
In September, ACR hosted its inaugural event by taking to the water with members of the Carleton men’s basketball team and kids from the Carlington neighbourhood, home to a significant number of new non-white immigrants, for lessons in stand-up paddle-boarding from a local instructor.
The ACR is planning to present more events as well as introducing mentorship, tutoring and sports programing for Ottawa youth. It represents just a beginning for the upstart organization, but Charles said they are hoping of growing into something bigger.
“We’re really just trying to provide opportunities for minorities,” Charles said about the organization’s focus.
“I know I’ve been lucky in my life to have been guided in the right way. Now, I want to know how can I help others have the same experience I had and get the breaks but also the mentorship that was necessary to get where I’ve been successful.”