Supporting Canadian Athletes

Ann Peel

Sitting around Ann Peel’s kitchen table in 1992, a group of recently retired Canadian athletes planned and plotted the creation of an independent voice for athletes in Canada. The result was the creation of the Canadian Athletes Association (CAA), renamed AthletesCAN in 1996.

“Athletes didn’t have a voice,” says Ann, a former national team race walker who became the first chair of the organization. “Selection procedures, discipline procedures, funding… we just took what we got. Arbitrary decision-making was the norm.”

With her father in the Canadian foreign service, Ann grew up in Europe before returning to Canada and completing high school in Ottawa, Ont. Originally a track-and-field athlete competing in the 400m, Ann first tried race walking for fun at a league meet and eventually went on to have great success on the international stage, winning a number of medals at Pan Ams, Universiade and World Indoor Championships.

A former lawyer, Ann moved to the non-profit world in 1996 as the executive director of Voices for Children, and then the executive director of Right to Play, before she joined Magna International. Following a few years of consulting, she is now the Director of the Institute at Havergal College—a girls’ independent school in Toronto. Ann has two sons—Michael, 16, and Andrew, 13.

The politically-charged 1976 Montreal Olympics and 1980 Moscow Olympics gave rise to a strong athlete rights movement in Canada, with such names as Bruce Kidd and Abby Hoffman leading the way.

When the Ben Johnson drug scandal hit at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, and the Dubin Inquiry ensued, a group of Canadian athletes decided to gather an athlete perspective on the doping situation and other issues affecting athletes. Five focus groups were held across the country (Ann facilitated the group that met in Toronto), and all yielded one major theme—athletes had different views and opinions than sport organizations and a means for their voices to be heard was needed.

“Dubin gave us an opportunity to get athletes together and talk to each other,” Ann says. “Dubin also showed us how little voice we had.”

The Toronto focus group became the brain trust for finding a way to have an independent voice for athletes. Using the diverse skills of the group (lawyers, accountants, marketers, etc.) AthletesCAN was born and Ann and Dan Thompson assumed the roles of provisional chairs.

Acting within the guidelines that an annual general meeting be held within 18 months of incorporation, the first Athletes Forum was hosted in Kimberley, Ont., in October 1993. Much to the delight of organizers, 150 athletes attended and 25 athletes ran for nine board positions.

“It was really exciting,” says Ann, who was officially elected chair at the Forum. “It was the first time ever in Canadian history that athletes got together without the purpose being competition.”

Over the next few years with Ann at the helm, AthletesCAN’s accomplishments included successfully campaigning to increase the Athlete Assistance Program (AAP) for the first time in a decade, formalizing athlete representation and leadership processesthroughout Canadian sport, educating athletes about their role as representatives, creating due process guidelines for athletes and sport organizations, gaining access to the sport ministry and to Sport Canada, founding The Sport Solution, and in general, working to create programs to support the issues and rights of athletes.

“It was a very intense period,” she says. “A lot of people didn’t like the idea of athletes getting organized.”

Unsure of how she got drawn into athlete leadership in the first place, “I’ve just always been involved,” Ann gave up the position of chair of AthletesCAN in 1996. At that time, the organization had grown and evolved and opinions on future directions were at a crossroads.

“Our original vision was quite a radical one going from nothing to creating something different,” says Ann, who admits her approach to advocacy is not one everyone agrees with. “When we started we were very assertive about athletes’ rights, and after we’d accomplished that first stage, people wanted to start building bridges and make AthletesCAN part of the sport system rather than independent. That’s not where I thought the organization should be.”

While Ann feels that AthletesCAN has done good things for athletes over the years, she says many of the same issues that were prevalent in 1992 still exist—primarily when it comes to funding.

“Economically speaking, athletes are not any better off than they used to be,” she says. “Athletes shouldn’t have to struggle to put food on the table while competing at a high performance-level, but they are still trying to get by on a shoestring.”

She feels increases to the AAP over the years haven’t been enough, and no one else has stepped up to the plate in any substantial way.

“To me, the resources athletes have access to are not adequate for consistent world class performances,” says Ann. “Athletes need stronger support, which a few sport organizations do seem to understand. We need better facilities nation-wide and we must support the coaching system. Corporate support has not bridged the gap and athletes are left struggling to make ends meet.”

For Ann, AthletesCAN’s greatest achievement to date is just getting started, and asserting the importance of an athletes’ perspective in sport’s decision-making processes. She says that having an independent voice for our country’s athletes is a huge achievement.

“We have the means to get the athletes’ point across,” she says.

But she also feels that athletes shouldn’t rely on an organization to do all the work for them.

“If you are going to do something, anything… be an athlete… be a lawyer… you have to understand the business that you are in and be an active voice,” says Ann. “You have a responsibility to understand what’s going on and to understand what needs to be changed.”

Looking back, Ann says she revels in the time and work she invested in the creation of AthletesCAN.

“I think it was totally worth it,” she says. “We didn’t know what to expect. We knew athletes were interested but we were thrilled by the initial buy-in and we made a great deal of progress in a short time. It was tons of work, but a lot of fun.”

As for the future of AthletesCAN, Ann’s vision is a simple one.

“I hope younger athletes coming up experience fewer barriers,” she says. “And that AthletesCAN is part of that.”

*Ann’s other athlete advocate successes include lobbying to have women race walkers a fixture of every major sporting Games. She also persuaded the federal government to reinstate carding for pregnant athletes and have pregnancy treated the same way as any other long-term absence rather than as a career-ending event. (She was awarded a CAAWS Breakthrough Award for her efforts in 2001.) Ann was also a leader in the fight against the gender verification test used at Olympic Games, harassment and abuse in sport, and the discrimination against girls and women in public funding for sport and recreation.

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