Playing Together: New Citizens, Sports and Belonging
July 28th, 2014
Maria, a new Canadian citizen from Romania, is an avid tennis fan. On settling down in Canada, she was thrilled to have a tennis club across the street from where she lived. But it took her two years to work up the courage to join it.
“Because they were looking so, you know, so Canadian, so [at ease] in their own thing there. I never dressed in a skirt, for example. Just cultural difference, you know? Every woman had [a] short skirt and equipment, very nice equipment, and I usually play like, not so well dressed,” Maria told a focus group for a national study exploring new citizens’ participation in sports.
Her hesitation to take part in sport is one of the insights uncovered by the study Playing together – new citizens, sports & belonging (PDF) released by the Institute for Canadian Citizenship (ICC) on July 8, 2014. “This study sheds light on the important role sports can play in effective integration if we focus our attention on removing the structural barriers to new citizens’ ability to participate in Canada’s sporting life, ” said Gillian Smith, ICC Executive Director & CEO. “The earlier, the faster we start playing together, the more inclusive and better our society would be.”
With immigration rapidly changing Canada’s demographic profile, it’s more important than ever to listen to new citizens’ perspectives on how Canada can accelerate their path to full inclusion, said Smith. “Our study is focused on new citizens rather than new immigrants because they have more bandwidth to engage with their new country after the initial frenzy of settling down. They now simply want an invitation to play.” The survey includes firsthand accounts from more than 4,000 new citizens collected online and through focus groups.
From ‘New Canadian’ to Canadian
The ability of sports to speed up the path to active citizenship and becoming part of a national conversation was also reemphasized by Karl Subban, father of Montreal Canadiens hockey star P.K. Subban. “An airplane moved us to Canada and hockey moved us from new Canadians to Canadians,” said Subban, who was present at the ICC book launch to share his family’s remarkable story. “Hockey has defined my family as individuals and as Canadians. Playing together supports my belief that sport has the power to unite, embrace cultures and enrich communities.”
Subban said new Canadians must make an extra effort to learn about the national passion for hockey without having to give up their passion for other sports. “The earlier we are able to fit in, the more productive we are as individuals and as a society. We simply need to get in the game.”
Survey respondents said that sport, as a natural and universal connection point, was more welcoming than many other social structures, including the workplace. It also helped them learn the Canadian social landscape and soft cultural skills, while offering access to informal, but vital, social networks.
Locker room wisdom
For many, sport was the starting point for deeper discussions about politics, culture and history. As one survey respondent put it, “[The] locker room is a great place to learn about Canada!” Some others joked that you “score points” with Canadians if you get enough “hockey sense” to pretend to know what you are talking about. Others wanted to participate for the sake of their children’s integration. A participant in a French focus group said, “I want to participate, to go to a hockey game…for my kids to know, to understand what hockey really is about and for them to really have a taste of what being a Canadian athlete truly means.”
Among the new citizens surveyed, 69% of those who played sports within their first three years in Canada believed it helped them learn about Canadian culture. They recognize hockey’s connection to Canadian identity and 71% had “some interest” in watching the sport. Approximately one quarter said they don’t follow baseball or football because they aren’t familiar with the rules. Running (39%), swimming (32%), cycling (26%), soccer (18%), badminton (12%) and tennis (11%) are the top sports they regularly played. More than half have tried a new sport once and are open to playing Canada’s winter sports.
While 44% of survey respondents have children who play organized sports, only 6% have their kids in mainstream Canadian sports like hockey or baseball/softball. Sports like soccer and cricket are the newest kids on the block.
New citizens love Team Canada as more than half watch the Summer and Winter Olympics. In the survey they also shared their ideas about how Canada’s sports organizations can get them into the game, suggesting opportunities to try winter sports for free and creating a Canadian sports welcome package.
Citing the ICC’s Cultural Access Pass that provides free admission to many of Canada’s cultural treasures as a model, Smith said her organization was more than willing to broker free or subsidized sporting opportunities for Canada’s newest citizens. “This study shows us just how easy playing together could be if we remove the assumption that everyone knows how it’s done,” she said citing lack of clear information about how one gets involved in organized sports as one of the systemic barriers new citizens face.
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