By Charlie Pinkerton
Black athletes from the University of Ottawa have made their efforts in fighting for equity public, marking the start to a movement that other Gee-Gees’ leadership hopes impacts the athletics department and the university as a whole.
It was a few months back, on Dec. 15, when a University of Ottawa varsity athletics tweet caught the attention of the Sports Pages.
Here’s a key part of what it said: “The University of Ottawa Gee-Gees Varsity Athletics is heart-broken to have seen and heard the impact that events this year, on our campus, in our city and around the world have had on our student-athletes, their classmates, and our community.”
The tweet also included this promise: “Varsity Athletics will work to address anti-Black racism and to support anti-racism and inclusion for all BIPOC groups and identities.”
The statement came after a summer when much of the world was forced to look itself in the mirror in response to the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others. It also followed a semester in which the uOttawa faced its own reckoning over racism.
In September, Verushka Lieutenant-Duval, an arts professor who is white, used the n-word in a lecture. What followed was seen as a bungled response by the university’s administration, deepening an already existing rift (because of past racist incidents on campus) between the school’s leadership and its students, specifically those who are Black.
One moment that was emblematic of the frustration of students, alumni, advocates and others who felt betrayed by inaction by the university’s administration was when president Jacques Fremont would not agree to a public meeting with protestors who staged a sit-in at Tabaret Hall, which houses Fremont’s office.
Demonstrators were dissatisfied with what a part of the student body considered lacklustre moves by the university’s executive, which included suspending Lieutenant-Duval and creating a “more action-oriented” anti-racism and inclusion committee than one that already existed.
Photos from the near week-long sit-in showed a banner emblazoned with messages including “Black Lives Matter,” “Listen to Black Students,” and “#URACISM” hanging in the hallways of the president’s building.
It was days after students’ protest simmered and they disbanded from Tabaret Hall that the Gee-Gees posted their message of solidarity on Twitter.
Meanwhile, over the same series of months, Black leaders within the athletics department had been working together, hashing out what their role would be responding to the latest in a series of discriminatory incidents on their own campus.
One of those leaders, Kaly Soro, the head assistant coach of the Gee-Gees women’s volleyball team, recently spoke to the Sports Pages about what’s been happening behind the scenes.
Soro is biracial and traces her roots to West Africa through her father, who immigrated to Canada. She grew up in Vancouver before moving to Ottawa, where she’s lived for the better part of the last decade. She attended De La Salle high school, during which she played for the Maverick Volleyball Club, before uOttawa, where she played for the Gee-Gees for five years before graduating in 2018.
Following Floyd’s death in May, Soro said she and her fellow Black alumni began holding “networking sessions” to talk about race issues and fighting through adversity.
Asked about what compelled to step into a leadership role, Soro described the reason as being rooted in the separate senses of pride she has in her personal heritage and in being a Gee-Gee.
“One of the original reasons I committed to Ottawa U is because there were kids that looked like me and spoke my language and sang the songs that I sang and danced to the songs that I liked to dance to,” Soro said.
“There was a connection because I saw faces that looked like mine, and when I found out that there were athletes here (at the university) that felt like that connection had been lost and that they did not have that space, it hurt… So I thought, how do I make it better for the kids who’ve told me they’ve lost that connection?”
Initial meetings over the summer led Soro to become more involved with other Gee-Gees coaches and athletes who were vocal against racism, eventually leading to them crafting anti-racism programming that was implemented for the school’s coaches and athletes this year.
Soro’s also been working with the Gee-Gees’ new Black Student-Athletes Advocacy Council, which formally announced its formation near the end of Black History Month last week. Soro has been acting as a liaison for the council in its communications with Gee-Gees varsity athletics and the university itself.
(It was the advocacy council that was behind the Gee-Gees’ Dec. 15 tweet, said Soro, who described it as “a good first piece at getting a word out and then holding us accountable to follow up on our actions as well.”)
Over the next year, Soro said she wants to see Gee-Gee teams implement annual reflections on issues like racial equality and gender equality, and that ongoing data-collection efforts about the Black student body be brought to fruition.
“That way we can better allocate these resources that the Black community really needs,” Soro said. “Whether that’s mental health, whether that’s better representation amongst coaches and staff, depending on the percentages of Black communities that are on the teams.”
In a separate recent conversation, uOttawa’s director of sports services Sue Hylland told the Sports Pages that over the next few months her department will be focused on creating an anti-racism action plan to eventually present to the university’s administration in April.
The plan will tie together the Gee-Gees’ efforts within their own ranks to other contributions they’re making to anti-racism initiatives at the OUA and U Sports levels. As well, they’ll pitch ideas for new policies.
“How do we prioritize Black and racialized applicants?” is an example Hylland illustrates. “Are there ways to focus on Black student-athlete scholarships? I think we’re going to be pushing that.”
“We’ve got to do a full audit… and I think we’ll make very concerted efforts —not necessarily in coaching — but in some other positions within varsity where we’ll make a very concerted effort to bring on people of colour,” Hylland said.
In an investigation published last summer, CBC Sports concluded that of the nearly 400 key leadership positions at Canada’s 56 universities, only 10 per cent were held by a Black, Indigenous or person of colour. CBC Sports’ investigation took into account schools’ athletic directors, head coaches of football, men’s and women’s basketball, hockey and soccer and track. Not a single of those positions at uOttawa is held by someone who is a visible minority. At least 10 uOttawa assistant coaches are visible minorities, based on information found on the Gee-Gees website.
Other measures that Hylland suggested her department’s plan could include were instituting anti-racism accountability mechanisms, training and education, and ways to promote representation and visibility for Black athletes and athletes of colour.
For Soro, it’s also important that the university return its attention to the people who she feels have too frequently been overlooked: the students.
“Actually making the connections with the students — listening and reacting to what the students have to say — that’s what we’re here for,” Soro said.
“That’s who we’re supposed to align with. And I think we may have let the gap become a little too large between all of (uOttawa’s) sectors of administration and the university students who ultimately run the University of Ottawa. I think we’ve missed a little bit of the mark there.”