2014 Conference

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More than a Game: The Politics and Potential of Sport

For its annual conference this year, the Couchiching Institute brought together over 20 leaders in the world of Canadian sport for thought-provoking conversations on the politics and potential of sport. With Ken Dryden, Richard Pound, David Petersen, and many more speakers, we dug deep into the psyche of sport to to wrestle with the good, the bad, and especially the politically charged. In case you missed it, you can visit our photo gallery to see and hear the great conversations at Lake Couchiching.

A Report by Doug Gibson

From the evening of Thursday, August 7th, until 1:30 on Sunday, August 10th, the people who attended our Summer Conference were immersed in sports.

The conference was opened with welcoming remarks by Councillor Ronald Douglas from the Chipawa Rama First Nation who was accompanied by three Rama First Nation youth who were part of the Ontario team that won a silver medal in July at the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG), the Rama Police Services Drum Group that performed an honour song prior to the welcome, and Sherry Lawson, Administrator of Heritage Services, who led a blessing and smudging ceremony. These greetings were followed by a welcome from Elizabeth Dowdeswell, former Couchiching Board member and Ontario Lieutenant Governor designate.

Thursday Keynote Session

The opening session featured two very different speakers: Ken Dryden, the former federal cabinet minister, author, and NHL star, and Elisabeth Walker-Young, the Paralympian swimmer and sport official. The contrast between the two speakers was striking and deliberate, as we tried to balance, right from the start, the major role of hockey in Canadian life with the role of sport in general. This session opened, in fact, with the NFB film, narrated by the author, Roch Carrier, of "The Sweater", which was nostalgic and charming. Ken's role was to shake us awake, saying, "It's not like that anymore", going on to explain just how much time and money goes into becoming a young NHL player today, with huge social implications in those, excluding costs.

Elisabeth spoke powerfully about what sport had opened up for her, a young woman born with dramatically shortened arms. The fact that she has gone on to lead a normal life was dramatically demonstrated by her baby daughter crying off-stage-crying with such healthy lungs that Elisabeth had to cut short her Q and A session to feed her hungry baby.

As always, Q and A sessions played a major role throughout the Conference sessions, as did the relaxed receptions that traditionally conclude each day.

Friday's Sessions

The Friday began with a keynote address by Richard Pound, ranging from his days as a young swimmer in Ocean Falls, British Columbia, whose incentive was to reach the end of the pool as fast as possible, to avoid drowning, all the way to swimming in the Olympic Games, then on to International Olympic Committee leadership and chair of the World Anti-Doping Agency, where he earned the hostility of cyclist Lance Armstrong.

This wide-ranging keynote was then discussed by a panel consisting of three dynamic speakers. Michael Chambers is a member of the Toronto 2015 Pan and Parapan American Games Board, and a past resident of the Canadian Olympic Committee. He explained not only "match fixing", but also "spot fixing". Colin Higgs is a Professor Emeritus at Memorial University, and an outspoken leader of the Long-Term Athlete Development movement. Pierre Lafontaine is the former national swimming coach and now the very positive CEO of Canadian Interuniversity Sport. The discussion topic was "The Competitive Edge: Is the Dynamic of Win/Lose Really a Win/Lose?" and the debate was well steered by our own Hana Gartner.

Friday afternoon's session focused on "The Perils and Promise of Olympic-sized Dreams", and was chaired by The Globe and Mail's John Doyle, fresh from covering the World Cup in Brazil. There was a predictable range of opinions between, on the promise side, David Peterson, the former Premier of Ontario and the enthusiastic Chair of the Toronto 2015 Organizing Committee, while on the side of caution was Parissa Safai, a professor at York University, who provided many examples of big, expensive Games that cost the sponsoring cities dearly, and did not provide the promised "infrastructure legacy". In the middle were Bruce Kidd of the University of Toronto and a former Olympian who has followed - and contributed to -this debate for half a century, and Thomas Hall, an Olympic medallist in sprint canoeing, and a board member of CanoeKayak Canada and AthletesCan.

Friday afternoon saw a major break with Couchiching tradition. Instead of spending all of our time in the conference hall, talking about the importance of regular exercise, we planned and provided specific exercise activities. Early in the morning (at 7a.m.!), kayaking and canoeing sessions attracted ten of our wide-awake people. The afternoons of Friday and Saturday featured a variety of sports, including lacrosse (coached by one of our Geneva Park hosts), soccer (coached by our distinguished president), Inuit games (where Jane Gibson's head-high kicks beat her husband's best efforts), rock climbing (again, about ten of our people rose to the challenge) and other activities, including tennis, swimming, running, and hiking Friday evening's session was "Let Us Play: Is Sport The New Religion?" Under the gavel of Karen Hamilton, the role of sport as "the opiate of the masses" was discussed. One speaker (an early-morning canoeist!) was the University of Montreal'sOlivier Bauer who, as a professor of Theology and Religious Studies found himself writing a book about how in Quebec the Montreal Canadiens hockey team are, in effect, a religion. Dr. Allan Downey , a member of the Nak'azdii First Nation, has written a thesis about the vital role of lacrosse, and spoke to that, while Phyllis Berck, Director, Toronto Office of Partnerships at the City of Toronto, spoke about her wide-ranging experience in sport. Later, after illness forced Dr. Guylaine Demers to cancel before she could talk about homophobia in sport, Phyllis kindly stepped in at the mike to list some of the points that she knew her friend Guylaine would have wished to make. The final panellist was John Doyle, who made some predictably thoughtful points.

As always, the animated discussion continued through the evening reception, with some themes emerging, such as the tug-of-war between the funds demanded by big medal-winning sports and local, low-level participatory sports in parks, or rinks, or pools, which also need the funds.

Saturday's Sessions

Chaired by Adam Redish, Saturday (for sleepy non-canoeists) began with the session entitled "Picked Last for the Team." The panel examined the tricky question of exclusionary tendencies in sport, relating to things like race, gender, and so on (questions that continue to dominate the sports pages, and beyond, in the month of September). Orlando Bowen had a powerful story to tell about his difficulties as a black athlete facing police prejudice. Paul Jurbala, a Research Fellow at the Centre for Sport Capacity at Brock University, gave an interesting overview, while Lynne LeBlanc, fresh from France and her job at Sports sans frontièrs, offered striking examples from the wider world of how sport can help to break down barriers, if prejudices can be removed from the selection process.

After lunch and the Annual Members' Meeting, the afternoon was devoted to "In The Field" sport activities, but with two other sessions on offer. First was a presentation by Heather Steel and Gillian Smith of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship on their new study, "New Citizens, Sports and Belonging", which emphasises how important playing sports - even following professional sports - can be to newcomers eager to integrate into Canadian society. Second was the Andrea Sadler documentary movie, "The Sacred Run, the Lotus and the Feather."

After dinner, we enjoyed an evening session entitled "Selling Dreams, Reporting Reality". Our chair (and former board member) Chris Waddell , the director of Carleton's School of Journalism, was ideal in the role, since in November he had chaired a Conference at The Banff Centre on Sports Journalism. His panellists were Nancy Lee, the former director of CBC Sports and an early proponent of this Summer Conference), Glen Hodgson of The Conference Board of Canada, who had just released a book on the business of sport in Canada, and Calgary-based sports columnist Bruce Dowbiggin, renowned for his outspoken approach to the 'sacred' world of sports. The discussion was spirited, and many interesting facts emerged about just how enmeshed the Canadian media world is with the world of professional sports.

The Saturday evening reception was, in accordance with tradition, marked by a skit created by the student attendees, whose questions had enriched the Conference sessions.

Sunday Morning Session

Sunday began with an all-morning session chaired by Ken Dryden. Ken had played a useful role in helping us to shape the Conference, and it was his suggestion that we include TJ Flood, vice-president of Marketing at Canadian Tire, a company that has been exploring the changing face of sport in Canada over the years. T.J. took us through Canadian Tire's journey, which resulted in their decision to buy the Sportchek chain. Then the debate was widened to discuss the topic, "Healthy Bodies, Healthy Citizens". As if saying, "All right, we've established that sports are hugely important for Canadians. How do we take that knowledge and use it to make Canadians better, and Canada a better country?", we had a fine group of experienced panellists to help us answer that question. John Cawley, the Director of Operations of the J.W. McConnell Foundation, has been involved in sponsoring socially beneficial sports programs from coast to coast; the foundation's publication, "A Good Sport", by the author Silver Donald Cameron was distributed at the conference, and provides good reading. Bob Elliott (one of the many articulate sports leaders lured our way by Sheila and Bruce Robertson) is the Senior Leader of the Sports Matters Group. Dr. Ann Snowden, from a nursing background, is now teaching at Western's Business School, with sports her specialty. And Dr. Margaret MacNeill is on the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical education at the University of Toronto, and very experienced in many areas of sport. The morning's discussion ranged widely, and touched on so many other related topics that it became clear we could run another entire conference on sports. But under Ken's energetic leadership (he would sometimes throw a question towards a questioner at the mike), it was a very stimulating discussion.

Closing Keynote and Ceremony

As a finale, we tried something new. The Sunday check-out means that the audience on Sunday afternoon has literally and figuratively already checked out. So we decide to drop the Sunday afternoon session, and instead include it at the end of lunch in the dining room. This wrap-up session was a summary of the Conference. We were fortunate to have two incisive speakers:Akaash Maharaj, a former Olympian with our show jumping team and a wise and interesting observer, and Bruce Dowbiggin. The two proved to be a very effective team.

The conference was then closed with a parting from Kim Wheatley, an Anishinaabe (Ojibway) band member of Shawanaga First Nation, who sent us on home with a traditional native blessing focussing on seeing one another again.

The response to the Conference was very positive and those who were in attendance will find that their understanding of the world of sports has been greatly enriched, helping to make the world a more interesting place, and to make them more interesting people. My co-chair, Heather Keachie and I are very grateful to all of the Program Committee members, and all of our Couchiching colleagues whose helped made this such a successful Conference. On to next year!

Click here to view our 2014 Conference photo gallery

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