Why sport for peace initiatives may risk reinforcing the same injustices they claim to address.
By Janice Forsyth, University of British Columbia, Canada
Canada’s past is indelibly marked by the violent dispossession of its Indigenous people. For 150 years, colonisers sought to stamp out every form and expression of Indigenous culture, including sport. Far from being an instrument of peace, sport became a tool of forced assimilation.
Today, Canada continues an ongoing journey to reconcile itself with these shameful chapters of its history. Yet Indigenous people still live every day with the legacies of colonialism. Centuries of discrimination and exclusion from political and economic power have left Indigenous communities on the margins of Canadian society, disproportionately affected by inequality, poverty, ill-health, and a lack of opportunities.
For young people in these communities, sport is heralded by non-Indigenous organisations as a potential solution to all and any such inequalities. Sport, we are told, is the force for good they need in their lives – a force that can set them on a better path, build bridges between them and the rest of society, and deliver them from disadvantage. But could these claims actually do more harm than good? Could they, by focusing on changing the individual rather than changing the system that created the problems they face, in fact serve simply to reinforce an unjust and marginalising status quo?
I have been involved in the Indigenous sport sector in Canada since the mid-1990s. Over that time, I have heard grand claims about the power of sport for development and peace. Organisations wanting access to Indigenous youth and their communities prattle on without a hint of irony about how their organisations are changemakers for our people, skillfully sidestepping difficult conversations about how their work is entangled with settler colonialism and neoliberal capitalism – the twin forces that make it hard for Indigenous people to pursue their goals of self-determination and sovereignty.
The problem is that sport for development and peace, in the context of ‘underprivileged’ groups, is embedded in the same unequal power relations that have shaped settler colonialism in Canada. While I acknowledge that sport has the potential to affect wider social change, it is the perceived ‘potential’ that is too often taken for granted. Believers assume their willingness to share the power of sport with those less fortunate will somehow address the inequalities and discrimination that produced their ability to share their goodwill in the first place.
Sport is not value-free
To understand how sport came to be entwined with oppressive and unequal power structures demands that we look squarely both at Canada’s history and at sport itself. Like most things, sport is not value-free. Embedded within it are the values and beliefs of the culture from which it originates. If we start to think of sport as a cultural activity that instils and reinforces cultural values and beliefs, it’s not hard to see how sport could become a tool of assimilation.
In mainstream sport, for example, winning is often considered the most important part, bringing with it glory, prestige and financial reward. But in some Indigenous cultures, winning can be looked at differently. In some communities, for example, athletes are recognised for their accomplishments in the moment, but are discouraged from elevating themselves above the people around them. This might mean that wearing medals throughout the sporting event is not encouraged, and bragging is frowned upon.
This is a reminder that pre-colonisation, Indigenous communities had their own forms and traditions of sport and physical activity, with their own set of values attached. But these, like all forms of Indigenous culture, would be targets for erasure. In the 1800s, newcomers started institutionalising their own ideas about appropriate physical behaviour in an effort to establish their authority in a new land. In other words, they advanced their own interests for sport at the same time as they put in place the building blocks for a new nation state, founded on the erasure of Indigenous peoples.
The colonisers repeatedly called into question the morality, ethics, and aesthetics of Indigenous physical practices, often with the intent of breaking down Indigenous ties to their lands, families, and communities. They attacked everything from Indigenous ceremonies (saying they were barbaric) to their hunting and gathering methods (saying they harmed the environment) to their games and competitions (saying they were primitive and reinforced attachments to a crumbling past). By regulating what Indigenous people could do with their bodies, the newcomers fundamentally altered, but did not destroy, Indigenous identities by reshaping their sense of self as individuals and collectives.
By the turn of the 20th century, most Indigenous people had been displaced onto reserves or had moved into the growing cities and towns looking for work. Their children – some 150,000 – were forcibly removed from their families and shipped off to state-run boarding schools to be ‘civilised’. Thousands died or suffered appalling abuse in a school system that would be a linchpin in the government's policy of forced assimilation.
Later, with Indigenous people under state control, new public discourses emerged based on widespread fears about their ability to contribute to Canada. Humanitarian claims about the power of sport to address the social ills they now faced – their poor education, impaired health, substance abuse, high unemployment rates, and so on (known for many years as ‘the Indian problem’) – were redirected to address those fears. As before, the focus was on changing the individual rather than changing the system that generated the problems they faced.
An impediment, wrapped as a gift?
Today, Indigenous people in Canada and elsewhere are using those same tools, the coloniser’s sports, to rebuild their communities and nations. But they need time and space to figure out how do this. In most cases Indigenous people have not been given decision-making power when it comes to developing programmes and policies that address their needs and aspirations. Usually these needs and aspirations get filtered through the dominant sporting lens.
What they need instead is access to the same political and economic channels that were used against them to construct their own understandings of sport for social development and peace. Humanitarian organisations have a role to play in undoing the power structure that continues to destabilise Indigenous ideas about what needs to be done and how to do it. Yet, when claims about sport being a force for good are promoted and accepted uncritically, the best that humanitarian organisations can do is offer a shallow quick fix. Unfortunately, they also at the same time reinforce the status quo.
It is for all these reasons that sport for development and peace in Canada is like a Trojan horse: it is an impediment wrapped as a gift. As attractive as the claims might be, they carry immense potential to endanger Indigenous wellbeing by undermining existing Indigenous organisations and systems. The most influential businesses that use sport for development and peace as their stock-in-trade are routinely backed by powerful public figures and the corporate elite who have the right connections to steer public policies in their favour, as well as the human and financial resources to pursue the grants stemming from those policies.
This creates stiff competition for Indigenous organisations that are already struggling with deficit conditions but must now find the time and energy to scramble for this funding, while simultaneously responding to the lopsided politics that continue to disadvantage them, all the while making sure the youth and communities they serve get what they need.
What is worse, some of the corporations that back these humanitarian businesses are the same entities that continue to displace Indigenous people from their lands for private development. Rarely are these business models founded on Indigenous decolonisation principles. If they were, they would be invested in leading broad-based systemic change that supports Indigenous self-determination in matters of sport and social development, rather than building their own organisational capacity to advance their corporate agendas.
So, how can non-Indigenous organisations shift their approach to sport for development and peace to minimise the Trojan horse effect? How can the general public accelerate that shift? In other sectors of Canadian society, there are parallel movements that offer useful directions.
In education, child welfare, justice, business, and health, more and more people are learning how to support Indigenous-led organisations, especially those that have an established track record in their specialised field. Some of these shifts towards reconciliation include financially backing Indigenous organisations to expand their operations, supporting Indigenous organisations in their push for policy and legislative change to advance their needs and interests, and taking the time to learn about the ideological and structural barriers that continue to limit Indigenous organisational stability.
At the same time, the public can help by sharing positive messages about Indigenous organisations, their programmes, and the youth and communities they serve on social media. They can reflect on systemic racism and other forms of discrimination, including economic discrimination, that perpetuate inequality for Indigenous organisations. Canadians in particular can write to their local government representative, as well as to provincial and federal ministers responsible for sport and sport for development, to express their wish to see money for Indigenous youth and community-based sport programmes directed towards Indigenous organisations and the systems they have worked so hard to build.
Each of those trajectories requires careful thought and planning, as well as wading through the deep beliefs we all carry about the role of sport in our lives and the lives of others. Humanitarian organisations and the public have an important role to play in addressing the chronic inequities that still exist in sport for social development by finding their place in a reimagined system that reorders the power relations so that Indigenous organisations and systems can work towards their own goals instead of serving those that meet outside interests.
Dr Janice Forsyth is Associate Professor in Indigenous Land-Based Physical Culture and Wellness in the School of Kinesiology at the University of British Columbia, Canada, and the author of Reclaiming Tom Longboat: Indigenous self-determination in Canadian Sport. She is a member of the Fisher River Cree Nation, Manitoba.
Images (from top): Open air exercises courtesy of Library and Archives Canada/National Film Board of Canada (fonds/a160942). The Black Hawks Ihockey team courtesy of Western Archives and Special Collections at Western University (AFC 451, Jan Eisenhardt Fonds / Folder: AFC 451-S5-F14, 56955 6-5.2-27).
How are universities helping to protect and promote Canada's Indigenous languages? In The ACU Review's 'Endangered languages' issue, Mark Turin's article Rising Voices argues that recognising Indigenous languages is central to addressing the legacies of historical injustice. While in Kanyen’kéha: back from the edge, Nathan Thanyehténhas Brinklow reflects on the centuries of collective wisdom encoded within the Mohawk language, Kanyen’kéha.