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Racism and Anti-Racism in Canadian Sport: An Interview with Dr. Janelle Joseph


Janelle Joseph is a Banting Research Fellow at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. Her research represents the first national interdisciplinary study to merge theories of youth studies, Afrocentricity, criminology, education, and physical cultural studies. Dr. Joseph’s research and teaching also include studies of transnationalism and sport, with a focus on issues of equity, race, and gender.

Simon Black: What forms does racism in Canadian sport take today? How are these forms different from the past?

Janielle Joseph: In Canada today forms of racism are both similar and different to the past. There is much less of what people commonly recognize as racism, that is, overt racism, though unfortunately many examples still exist. For example in Canada’s most popular sport, ice hockey, in London, Ontario two years ago Wayne Simmons, a black player with the Philadelphia Flyers was subjected to name calling and had a banana thrown at him. Similarly elite junior player Malcolm Subban has also reported receiving racist comments from opposing players and fans, especially because he plays the important position of goalie.

Beyond these few examples, which are usually dismissed as isolated incidents, or the results of a few “bad” racist individuals, there are many examples of more complex, covert signs of racism in Canadian sport. Recently the exclusion of turbans (and as a result, those men that follow Sikh religion) from soccer is an example of complex racism. Here, the Quebec Soccer Federation used other issues, such as safety concerns associated with religious headgear, to stand in for a racist exclusion of difference.

Also, a few years ago when Patrick Chan criticized Canadians for a lack of support for figure skating, and noted the media’s fascination with his Chinese heritage and the fact that he would probably get more popular and financial support in China, he pointed out some of the flaws in Canadian race relations and sport. Meanwhile Skate Canada chose to focus on his comments as a celebration of heritage to mask his critiques with the dominant language of Canadian multiculturalism. Yet the process of ‘othering’ or marking some athletes as only partially Canadian, remains at the core of racism in Canadian sport today.

Where racism in sport has changed, particularly in the last 10 years, is the proliferation of online media, which is less regulated than mainstream media sources such as newspapers and televised news. Anyone can start a blog or tweet, and anyone can create an online comment to respond to a newspaper report, or Youtube video. The anonymity of these venues allow hate-speech that might otherwise be repressed to come to the fore.

SB: What is the current state of anti-racist struggles in Canadian sport? In what ways has Canadian sport been a site of resistance to racism?

JJ: The anti-racist voice in Canadian sport could be more lurid, but there are two factors working against activists. The first is the notion of Canada as a racism-free nation. The discourses of Canada as a welcoming nation, as a place that celebrates many cultures and heritages and as a “better” place where immigrants long to live, are strong. Canada is widely seen as a “level playing field,” where people of all backgrounds can achieve greatness.

This expression comes to politics from sporting realms and is indicative of the second factor that works against anti-racism activists. That is, the notion of sport as an egalitarian institution. It would seem that ‘anyone’ can become an elite boxer, ice skater, or hockey player, because they will be judged only on their talents. Just look at Mary Spencer, Patrick Chan, or Jerome Iginla! However, the fact remains that Canadian athletes of Aboriginal, Chinese, and African descent for example, are not represented in Canadian sport in similar proportions to their numbers in the Canadian population. Other factors such as socioeconomic status and the free time, money and parental knowledge and support play a role for all Canadians, but these are not independent of issues associated with racism.

Strengthening the anti-racism struggle both in and out of sport will facilitate the creation of a more ‘level’ playing field. Just as there are many examples of racism from individuals, institutions, and media sources, there are also many examples of resistance to racism in online commentary and news reporting. Many Canadians express outrage when they see/hear of examples of discrimination. There are academic conferences and the pressure from outside organizations, such as FIFA that give me hope that more people will come to understand the complexity and pernicious results of racism in Canadian sport.

Janelle Joseph, BSc., MSc., PhD, is the Banting Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow in the Faculty of Education, University of Ontario Institute of Technology.

This article appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of Canadian Dimension (Sports: Views from Left Field).


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