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Jun 29 2017

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Let’s get in the game

June 29, 2017 | By

Revitalizing Canada’s sport sector

Canadians certainly have a passion for sport. Not only for the sake of entertainment: many of us – 85 per cent to be exact – feel that participation also has the potential to build stronger communities. Therefore, it was appropriate when Governor General David Johnston declared 2015 the “Year of Sport” in Canada.

It was a year of excitement as Canada hosted the FIFA Women’s World Cup, Pan Am and Parapan Am Games, IIHF World Junior Championships and a combined 120 other national and international sporting events. The overarching theme – “Canada: A Leading Sport Nation” – included a call to action of volunteerism and sport participation. It was a year full of activity that was also seen as an opportunity to increase civic pride and build momentum leading up to Canada’s 150th anniversary.

Soccer game at the Toronto 2015 Parapan Am Games. Photo credit: James Poremba, University of Toronto

This came just a few years after the federal government adopted the Canadian Sport Policy (CSP) in 2012, which had a vision to champion a “culture that promotes and celebrates participation and excellence.” In its second iteration (the first of which was adopted in 2002), the policy was informed by a national consultation process involving more than 50 meetings, surveys and targeted outreach to women, Indigenous people, and members of visible minority populations who were and still remain underrepresented in sport.

While far from perfect, the CSP contains some worthwhile policy goals and aspirations that, if achieved, could make great contributions to the physical, mental, economic and social well-being of all Canadians.

However, policies are only as good as their potential for implementation – and the CSP is one of eight federal policies related to sport that face implementation challenges. While the CSP provides a roadmap, one would be hard pressed to find a driver to follow it. As a policy that covers a long 10-year period in a fragmented sector, the risk that CSP ends up as simply a statement that lives on the shelf rather than on the rinks, courts, pitches and playgrounds across Canada is very high. It is a prospect that betrays Canada’s claim to be a “leading sport nation.”

As we look forward to the next 50 years, we must do justice to the work done to establish CSP. It’s time for Canada to seriously get into the game of sport policy implementation. To do so, the current system must be radically transformed. A good starting point would be to abolish Sport Canada – the federal department supporting sport programs and policies – as it currently exists. Instead, we should establish a properly funded crown corporation with the explicit mandate to lead the implementation of sport policy.

A Crown Corporation for Sport

A crown corporation for sport would revitalize the sport sector in several ways, by:

  1. Establishing leadership in the sport and recreation sector;
  2. Providing better stewardship and accountability;
  3. Increasing the capability of the sport system; and
  4. Improving the quality of information and research available.

Clear leadership in the sector would translate policy into actionable and measurable strategic plans. CSP is ambitious if only because of the fragmented sport sector. But a 10-year scope puts it in a wholly different realm of feasibility, especially when it is not backed by strong implementation mechanisms or strategic plans. Evaluations of the first iteration of CSP (from 2002 to 2012) were lukewarm at best. This is especially true of sport participation where numbers have been on a consistent decline since 1992, at which time 45 per cent of Canadians participated in sport. Today, participation is at an all-time low, with only 26 per cent of Canadians participating.

Strong sector leadership would move sport policy away from a history of missed opportunities towards one of excellence in building sport, increasing participation and enhancing the health, social and economic benefits of sport for individuals and communities. This new approach could motivate and bring together disparate actors in the sector including schools, all levels of government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – thereby helping to build stronger, healthier communities.

Establishing this corporation would certainly require some increases in investments which a majority of Canadians – 68 per cent – would support. However, consider that Canada has already spent more than $3 billion on sport since 1985 and, recently, closer to $300 million a year. Yet it is hard to see how the system as a whole has improved.

Why a Crown Corporation?

A crown corporation could provide better stewardship of public funds. When investments are aligned to a strategic vision to pursue policy objectives, they tend to be more effective. Such an approach would provide an opportunity to revamp the funding system to support increased participation, build a thriving sport system and create sporting opportunities for all Canadians. A more strategic approach would not only spur action on policy objectives, but also increase innovation and perhaps create a culture of entrepreneurship in the sector.

Accountability is critical to effective stewardship. Canadians need to know how, where and why their money is spent the way it is. Annual financial and, importantly, performance reporting would create transparency in sport spending. This is significant as the incorporation of measurement and evaluation tools would hold the organization accountable to the sector but, most importantly, to the taxpayer.

A crown corporation for sport would increase the capability of the system by investing in people and organizations. The goal should be to produce excellence in the boardrooms, offices, facilities and coaches’ corners. From governance to articulating missions and strategic goals to financial and performance reporting, the sector needs consistent support. The 12 per cent of Canadian volunteers who provide nearly one-fifth of total volunteer hours to sport would be better served by such a system, as would provincial and national sport organizations. Enhanced human capital and more efficient sport organizations make the system stronger and allow the sector to contribute to providing quality sport for Canadians.

Beyond human resources, the Canadian sport sector also requires a plan for physical infrastructure. As Canada approached its centennial in 1967, the country embarked on a bold infrastructure building project to provide Canadians accessible recreational and sport facilities. There has not been investment at a comparable national scale since then, leaving us with a $15 billion deficit in sport and recreational infrastructure across the country.

While the crown corporation may not fund such an ambitious project, it could provide the plan that would see Canada increase the quality of facilities for the next generation. This is an important element to ensuring that we achieve policy objectives and ensure that all Canadians can participate in sport and recreation close to home.

In order to achieve policy objectives, we must have high quality data. This is another area in which a sector-leading crown corporation could have a significant impact. Reporting on trends and solutions domestically and monitoring them abroad would provide a strong basis for action within the sector. A data-driven approach would be a major step in moving sport policy implementation into the 21st century.

Additionally, by its cross-cutting nature and impact, sport can live in several different ministries including Health, Education and its current home, Heritage. Internal and external jurisdictional issues pose challenges for governments. This produces complexity in the sector creating confusion and inaction.

Freeing sport from the existing ministerial and bureaucratic limitations would make it more nimble and responsive to the needs of the sector and Canadians. It would be a first step to citizen- and participant-centred policy.

In a world where iPhones and other digital distractions pose serious threats to the health and well-being of our citizens, as well as the sport sector, Canada needs a bold idea to ensure all Canadians have access to quality sport.

Could this work?

We don’t have to look far for examples and evidence suggesting that such an approach would be successful. Canada’s cultural policies are implemented in large part by the Canada Council for the Arts (CCA). Established in 1957, the CCA was created to foster the study and enjoyment of, and the production of works in, the arts. While it is in another sector, the model provides leadership and accountability as well as support to artists, collectives and organizations.

A model that Canada can look to in the sport sector can be found in New Zealand: a country of 4.6 million people which truly leads in sports. Sport New Zealand, a crown corporation, is responsible for the oversight and leadership of the sport and recreation sector. Whereas only 26 per cent of Canadians participate in sport, nearly three-quarters of New Zealanders (74 per cent) are currently active in sport. Sport New Zealand has produced great results in both community and high performance sport.

Another example is Australia, a country with a population closer to Canada’s, which also manages sport through a crown corporation. Australia is a dominant force in international sport. This is a fact that many Australians are proud of yet they are also one of the leading countries when it comes to sport participation. In fact, the Australian Sport Commission (ASC) has produced an excellent strategic plan for sport participation across the country – one that Canada can learn from.

These are nations that have committed to developing effective sport systems and are invested in ensuring that their countries benefit from sport. There are many other countries, such as the United Kingdom, which have taken similar approaches.

Policy implementation should not be a barrier to a stronger sport and recreation system. In a world where iPhones and other digital distractions pose serious threats to the health and well-being of our citizens, as well as the sport sector, Canada needs a bold idea to ensure all Canadians have access to quality sport. With participation at an all-time low and current high performance funding models being challenged, the urgency is clear: the time is now for a change.


As Canada marks its 150th birthday this year, Canadians have a historic opportunity not only to celebrate a century and a half of accomplishments, but also to look forward to what we can achieve in the future. The Mowat Centre is releasing a series of short written pieces and video interviews in the weeks leading up to July 1st that will look ahead and present a variety of bold, potentially transformative policy ideas.

More Bold Ideas

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