Sport: Rugby Sevens
Local Club: Ottawa Irish
By Madalyn Howitt
Whether she’s organizing an anti-racism march through the streets of Victoria, B.C., or calling for Indigenous land acknowledgements before tournaments, Team Canada women’s rugby sevens player Pam Buisa has shown to be a natural-born leader.
The 24-year-old has already proven she’s a force to be reckoned with as an athlete. Initially starting off as a basketball player, Ottawa’s Buisa made the switch to rugby when her Grade 7 coach thought her style of aggressive play would be better suited to the hard-hitting sport.
Since then, she’s thrived on the pitch, helping to lead the women’s national team to back-to-back bronze medals at the 2019 and 2020 Rugby Seven Series and bringing home a gold medal at the 2019 Pan Am Games.
As accomplished as she is though in rugby, Buisa is also a distinguished leader for social justice, fighting for causes that help advance welfare and equity. She’s used to pushing through the toughest rugby matches, and now she’s learning how to maintain that same drive and determination in her community work.
By being both an activist and an athlete, Buisa is cultivating a legacy of compassion on, and off, the rugby pitch.
“Energy can be given and taken away,” said Buisa. “I think at the beginning [of the pandemic] I was very much figuring out how to balance out my energy and be intentional with where I [was] applying it.”
When lockdowns meant team practices and games were limited, much of Buisa’s energy went towards community engagement and education. During the past year, Buisa organized anti-racism rallies in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and began working at the Howard Johnson hotel in Victoria when it became a temporary housing shelter for people experiencing homelessness and displacement.
After graduating from the University of Victoria with a degree in political science and social justice, Buisa felt equipped to jump headfirst into those worlds.
“I felt myself completely immersed in social justice. A lot of it was based on my own identity as a black cis woman,” she said. “The elements that I [now] find myself having to work on is that recovery component. Like, how do you take a break? How do you recharge so that you’re ready for the next thing? How do I channel my energy and my efforts in a way that is effective and intentional?” she explained.
Buisa shared that some of the most important things she’s learned about being intentional with her energy have come from the decolonial work of Indigenous leaders.
“Every single day that we step on the field we do a territory acknowledgement as part of our decolonial efforts,” she said, referring to a practice that her and her rugby sevens teammates have adopted.
“For me, [it’s about] understanding what it means to represent Canada at this level and its relationships with a lot of Indigenous communities, and just being mindful of how it’s important to acknowledge the lands that you’re on.”
This includes recognizing that Ottawa, where Buisa played with the Ottawa Irish Ruby Club, exists on unceded Algonquin Anishinaabe territory, she said.
A proven track record
Sean Liebich was Buisa’s coach for two years with the Irish, starting in 2014. He said while she was often busy with national team commitments, Buisa already showed tremendous leadership within the club.
“She was sort of more of a leader or coach than a player that first year, really helping the other girls develop knowledge,” he said. “And then the second year, she actually played some games which was awesome to see, and I know all the other girls took note of the things that she did on the field.”
Her keen sense of social justice was already apparent even then, he said.
“She was a voice for the other athletes. If they wanted to do something different or they felt they needed a different kind of experience on the field, she felt confident providing voice for the players.
“I think that kind of leadership has played out into the work she’s doing now. It’s great to see her using her voice and her platform,” said Liebich.
In addition to the many lessons she’s learned from community leaders in recent years, Buisa credits her formative years in rugby with encouraging her to find her strength.
“I learned a lot from my teammates and a lot from our coaching staff. They [have] the ability to spot your potential [and] also facilitate a trajectory towards being in your power,” she said.
“A lot of people who are starting to see the intersection of sports and social justice,” she added.
“When you’re in high-performance sports, oftentimes you’re in a bubble. In order for us to reach for greatness, we need to be more intentional when relating to each other and playing the game.”
Liebich recognizes the impact Buisa is having on the sport for the next crop of players.
“She is [forming] a legacy where the new players coming in get to look at her as the new generation of what could be possible. I think that’s a really powerful position to be in, and the whole Ottawa rugby community is lucky to have her,” he said.
Buisa said with all the ups and downs of the past year, she’s excited to now be able to channel everything she’s learned into this once-in-a-lifetime Olympic moment.
“Being named the Olympic team has been literally my dream my entire life, so I’m just so proud to be on it.”
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