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City council set to lose its strongest voice for sport as Mathieu Fleury departs

Mathieu Fleury wasn’t far removed for his lifeguard chair before taking his seat as an Ottawa city councillor at age 24. File photo

By Dan Plouffe

Age 37 is often the time when many elite athletes retire from sports. For many politicians, that’s often when they’re just getting started.

Mathieu Fleury more closely matches the anticipated career for an athlete career when it comes to age. But like many others who aren’t seeking re-election Monday, the downtown councillor will be nursing some battle scars from recent years as he exits the political ring.

The outgoing City of Ottawa sport commissioner isn’t headed for the couch though – if anything, moving away from his councillor job will give him more time for sport.

“I’m not going to sit on my hands,” Fleury pledges. “Am I going to hold the official capacity as an elected official? For the time being, no. But I am still active and I think I remain an important resource for many local sports organizations.”

He’s got plans to maintain volunteer roles with many local sports groups and projects, and he jokes that he could always go back to the pool deck for his next job.

“I know we need a lot of lifeguards,” smiles the former Parks and Recreation department employee.

Establishing Ottawa Sport Council a lasting legacy

Fleury knocked on 22,000 doors and was elected as the Rideau-Vanier ward councillor at age 24, shortly after graduating with a human kinetics masters degree from the University of Ottawa. In this final term of three, he served as the City’s sport commissioner, giving him an official title for a role he’d already embraced.

Passionate about sport since he first jumped into baseball and hockey at a young age, Fleury then discovering a wide range of sports during his high school years. In his early days as councillor, the Franco-Cité grad tried 52 sports in 52 weeks to get to know the local sports community and made videos to spotlight each group.

Mathieu Fleury’s 52 sports in 52 weeks challenge. File photo

Fleury says he’s most proud to have been a co-founder of the Ottawa Sport Council – created as an umbrella organization to act as a voice for local sports groups at city hall – and believes that’s an accomplishment that will have the biggest ongoing impact from his time as councillor.

“Mat has been a real champion of community sport since he first came into office,” underlines Ottawa Sport Council executive director Marci Morris. “Mat viewed the community sport sector as a fundamental building block of the community.

“As both sport commissioner and councillor, he would always look to see how he could support this sector and ensure sport was inclusive and accessible to all.

“Mat’s retirement from City council will leave a big hole.”

Morris is worried that the new council may not appreciate the importance of sport or make it a significant priority.

Read related story: Overlooked on the campaign trail? A peek at how Ottawa’s top mayoral candidates could impact sport

Fleury is likely unique as a councillor who can jump from sport to sport across the city and be knowledgeable of who and what’s involved. Set to be lost is a councillor who studied sport and has a deep understanding of government policies from both a public health and a high-performance perspective, locally and nationally.

Fleury says it will be “extremely difficult” for new elected officials to understand the complicated sport ecosystem from the grassroots level, up the ranks and to the top, and where gaps exist.

“I’ve used the privilege of office to hopefully make a difference in the sport community,” he indicates. “And I think I have, both for my community and more broadly, to equity-seeking groups and to the sports clubs and associations.”

Sports facility development a ‘shortfall’

Fleury adds that he also leaves “knowing there’s a lot of things that I’d still love to accomplish.”

“We struggle with bringing meaningful change to some of our largest barriers around aging recreation facilities, around serving some of the poorest neighbourhoods, around meeting expectations of what a G7 capital should be like, with facilities in particular, and around having a key vision for sport,” he explains. “That’s what I tried to bring in four years (as sport commissioner) – although two years were very limited – but to identify and unlock the governance struggles.”

Mathieu Fleury councillor headshot. File photo

Fleury is most disappointed that more desperately-needed sports facility development projects haven’t come to fruition.

“My shortfalls are definitely – and it’s a generational shortfall – are on infrastructure delivery,” he signals, noting that the City relies on many facilities built around Canada’s centennial that now need renewal and expansion 50+ years later to properly serve the community.

But Fleury is at least pleased to have made headway on important groundwork for future projects, noting that the policy aspects that led to the current situation are now being corrected.

“The Parks and Rec master plan, being intentional about some of our shortfalls, doing a big debrief on the Canada Summer Games’ bid failures – all of those matter, all of those have an impact,” he details, while underlining that funding needs to follow,

“From Public Health, to recreation, to the sport club in the neighbourhood, to Ottawa Tourism… I think everyone’s aware now where we need to go. It’s the time to execute and the time to invest.”

Increased partnerships between different levels of government, local sports groups, universities, and corporate Ottawa, would offer great potential to help remedy some of the problems, adds Fleury, who would like to continue to help push forward projects of that nature in the coming years.

Equity in sport remains an ongoing issue

In some ways, a challenge related to dated facilities is that new or growing sports can have trouble gaining access to venues when they haven’t traditionally used those spaces.

“The community has changed. And it can’t lose its identity – football and hockey will continue to live on – but how do we respond to these emerging needs in a more organized and more intentional way?” Fleury asks.

“You can’t be agnostic to this growth in population, the diversifying of population, the growth in certain sports, and the aging of our population, which are shifting the needs in all parts of our city, not just in a particular neighbourhood.”

Mathieu Fleury. File photo

The basketball community’s quest for equitable treatment is an example of an area the City, and schools that rent their gymnasium spaces, “need to be more and more principled on some of the equity issues,” he highlights

“It costs very little to get shoes and a ball, and with that, you can play soccer and you can play basketball,” adds the Ottawa Community Housing board member of 12 years. “For winter sports, it’s very expensive to put in the hands of a youth all that’s needed from learning to skate all the way to enjoying our hockey, for example.

“If a youth in our community is not privileged, they need to have access to those.”

More cash isn’t the only answer to enable opportunities for all – community-based projects can also make a difference, Fleury maintains.

“For example, the Rideau Winter Trail offers an amazing opportunity (for everyone to participate) – if the ski equipment is there,” he indicates. “I think there are many opportunities there like that.”

The sports community has some missing links, Fleury adds, illustrating how difficult it would be for a parent who hasn’t grown up in sport or in Ottawa to know how their child could go from an introductory sport program, to a development community club, to high-level training, to getting onto the radar of a university program – and how immensely more difficult that becomes if they don’t have the means to pay for it all.

“That’s too much of a risk,” he highlights. “We’ve got to be more systemically engaged on it. How does a kid in a backyard or the playground at school get to grow in the sport, and if they choose that they want to, how can they perform at the highest level?”

Future food for thought from Fleury

Since taking on the job four years ago, Fleury expanded the City sport commissioner role to include a wider range of sports-related issues, beyond the initial heavy focus on attracting national and international events in collaboration with Ottawa Tourism.

He’d now like to see it evolve farther, with responsibilities divided.

“My advice is to not identify one person, but to bring together a group of three or four councillors (or other elected or non-elected officials) who are there on behalf of the sport community, because there’s multiple responsibilities,” Fleury outlines, noting that there are many important areas that require attention – such as event hosting and sport-fuelled economic development, children’s sports, school sports, facility management, sport policy and funding – but they can sometimes compete with one another.

“I think there’s opportunities to strengthen the governance and go back and be more intentional and more impactful with investments and strategies,” he adds.

Creating a body of that nature would be up to the next mayor, notes Fleury, who would welcome the opportunity to help serve on a committee if desired.

Mathieu Fleury with the Ottawa Rowing Club. File photo

Fleury plans to remain on the board of directors for the Ottawa Sport Council and the Rideau Winter Trail, he’d like to help Carleton and uOttawa with their facility plans, and he may get more involved with the Ottawa Lions Track-and-Field Club and Ottawa Race Weekend.

He hints that he’ll likely land in a sport-related role for his next job, after a break for the rest of 2022 following his last day in office (there’s a transition period after the election until the new council takes over on Nov. 15.)

The father of one (with a second child expected in the spring) is looking forward to having more time for family, and for his own sports pursuits.

“If I don’t take care of myself, you know, I’ll find myself dead, buried underground, by 50,” Fleury says, with a bit of a smile, but not joking. “I want to train for a marathon. I want to join a soccer league. I want to start playing some outdoor hockey again. I have a lot of personal goals.”

Mathieu Fleury and Olympic wrestling champion Erica Wiebe at the Ottawa Sports Awards banquet. File photo

Fleury has loved – and will continue to enjoy – watching the city’s sports teams and athletes excel.

“There’s amazing potential for our young folks to grow and perform in sport,” he states, underlining the contributions of the devoted volunteers who fuel the local sports scene.

“I’ve met great people along the way, who are very passionate about our city. It’s been a blessing for me.”

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