Canada’s women’s soccer team kicked off its Celebration Tour at TD Place in Ottawa with a 5-1 win against New Zealand on Saturday, but while the 16,386 fans were there to honour the team’s Olympic gold medal at the Tokyo Games, the players took the opportunity to send a message of their own.
After the pregame festivities and pyrotechnics that celebrated the Olympic champions, players from both teams came together at centre field before kickoff in a unified demonstration.
“Our voice carries a unique weight right now. We want to make the most of it,” said captain Christine Sinclair.
The Canadian Soccer Players Association (CSPA), the organization that is led by national team players and represents their interests, later released a statement which read, in part:
“We stand in solidarity to acknowledge the abuse that has occurred in sport across Canada. We stand together for the victims of abuse and to show our commitment to end this culture of silence and abuse.”
As reported by Shireen Ahmed, the players sent a letter to Canada Soccer on Friday night outlining a list of demands, which included an independent investigation into Bob Birarda, the former Vancouver Whitecaps and U20 national women’s coach who is facing nine sex-related charges in British Columbia.
The letter also acknowledges the recent allegations made public in the National Women’s Soccer League involving sexual coercion and abuse by a former coach.
“Obviously playing in the NWSL… there’s a lot going on in terms of harassment and things like that,” said Sinclair, who plays for the NWSL’s Portland Thorns, where some of the recent allegations took place. “As players, we’re tired of being silent. We’re tired of being quiet.
“We thank the New Zealand players as well for joining us.”
These are the demands by the players that were sent to Canada Soccer:
We call on Canada Soccer, its board of directors, its executives, and its coaching staff to commit publicly and unequivocally to Canada’s soccer community to build a safe environment for our athletes. We also call on Soccer Canada [sic] to apologize to those who have been victimized and abused while playing the sport they love.
We call on Canada Soccer to initiate a transparent, third-party independent investigation of the allegations against Bob Birarda during the time when he was employed by Canada Soccer at a mutually agreed time to understand fully what occurred and to develop recommendations and best practices to better protect our athletes.
3. Safe Sport for All
We call on Canada Soccer to fully implement the Independent Safe Sport Mechanism. We call on the Government of Canada to protect vulnerable athletes by making the Independent Safe Sport Mechanism mandatory for all National Sports Organizations by the end of 2021.
Canada Soccer also released a statement Saturday afternoon, saying that the organization has agreed to meet the three requirements outlined by the players.
“Our national team players are role models, and we support and commend them on their willingness to effect positive change in Canada,” part of the statement read.
Sinclair added that she would like to see an independent investigation into Birarda made public.
“I think people deserve to hear the results,” she said.
Saturday also marked the formal partnership between the CSPA and the Professional Footballers Association Canada, a union for elite soccer players in the country.
In the announcement, the two sides stated that it is “a key milestone in the journey of Canadian players to strengthen their collective voice in pursuit of fair and equitable treatment for players throughout the country’s growing soccer industry.”
Canadian Players Taking a Stand
The national team has been at the forefront of several social justice movements. Earlier this year at the SheBelieves Cup, all the players wore Black Lives Matter shirts during warm-ups and knelt for the Canadian anthem. They have publicly supported current player Quinn after they came out as transgender last year.
Simply put, this team puts in the work on and off the pitch.
Saturday was meant to be a day for them. A day where Canadian fans could watch the national team play at home for the first time in over two years, where they could honour their unprecedented achievement of Olympic gold.
But the players unanimously chose to turn this day – their moment – and make it about something bigger than themselves.
This team, which is comprised of racialized players as well as members of the LGBTQ+ community, recognizes the issues that are bigger than themselves and bigger than a late-October friendly.
“We are just literally asking for acknowledgement,” goalkeeper Erin McLeod told TSN on Friday. “I know this is a victory tour, and I also know how important that is, but we had a vote yesterday about the minute of silence and the demands and it was unanimous. One hundred per cent of the team recognizes that this is way more important. We have the opportunity for significant change.”
“I’m so proud of Erin McLeod and the work she’s done,” Sinclair said. “She really stepped up for our team to lead this.”
This team continues to take a stand for labour rights, women’s equality, and many other issues of social justice.
This past Canada Day, the players released a statement in support of the Indigenous communities across the nation.
“Historically, July 1st has been a day of celebration. This year, we commit to educate ourselves about the history of our country and the Indigenous Peoples of what we now call Canada,” part of the statement read.
Now, as the players call for action from their own federation, they acknowledge the abuse allegations within women’s soccer in Canada and the ongoing case against Birarda.
Earlier this week, midfielder Desiree Scott addressed the allegations in the NWSL.
“I think that's really what it's about is protecting the players,” she said. “It is an important step for people to come forward and really make the changes that are necessary to make it a league that we can all be proud to play in, that people are protected and feel safe in.”