ELITE INDIGENOUS ATHLETE PARTICIPATION
What Australia Can Teach Canada, and Why It Matters
By Thomas Law

 

“I think it’s ridiculous that there’s one, maybe two active professional Indigenous women’s soccer players in North America.” For distinguished forward Victoria Marchand, the lack of Indigenous athletes at the top of North American sport is an all-too-familiar and personal affair, hardly exclusive to soccer. Last season’s NHL had just 10 Indigenous players across the league, while the CFL, NBA, and MLB are equally if not more bereft. In one sense, it’s yet another example of marginalization; why would sport differ from education, industry, politics, and wider society? But a look across the Pacific shows it doesn’t have to be this way.

In both Canada and Australia, Indigenous people make up roughly five per cent of the wider population, and the histories of colonization, cultural genocide, and continued discrimination

bear many similarities. But whereas the number of prominent athletes in the North American major leagues could be counted on one hand, the situation is remarkably reversed Down

Under. In Australia’s two most popular sporting competitions, the Australia Football League (AFL) and National Rugby League (NRL), more than one in ten players is Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander.

 

Such is their preponderance in rugby league that often a quarter of national team players are Indigenous, whilst the sport’s All Stars weekend pits the best Indigenous Australian men and

women against the Māori of Aotearoa New Zealand. Clubs, players, and leagues even involve themselves in pertinent political issues, with the NRL, AFL, Olympic and Commonwealth

Games committees, soccer federations, and multiple other governing bodies coming out in support of the Yes campaign in the run-up to the Voice referendum.

 

The usual voices may ask why such representation matters, that in professional sporting recruitment, the only consideration must be the cut-throat pursuit of the most talented at any given moment. However, analyzing why there is such a shortage of talent at the top highlights the structural and societal barriers facing Indigenous Peoples in sport and life. The lack of role models also entrenches a cycle of futility, depriving generations of inspiration to pursue their sporting dreams. 

 

What explains this discrepancy? For one, pathways and development look remarkably different in Canada and Australia. Promising youth talent in Canada is primarily funnelled through educational institutions, from the school level up to the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) and U Sport tournaments for colleges and universities respectively, eventually ending up at the drafts for the major leagues.

 

In Australia the path is more direct, with professional clubs scouting the best players directly from local teams based in the community. Whilst leagues fund and promote outreach programs

to Indigenous communities, the picture in Canada is limited and piecemeal. Asked about

league-led specific programs and outreach initiatives for Indigenous athletes, Marchand unequivocally responded, “There is currently none. There’s nothing for Indigenous athletes in the CCAA and U Sport.”

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – SEPTEMBER 6: Australia celebrates a goal during the International Friendly Match between Australia and Canada at Allianz Stadium on September 6, 2022 in Sydney, Australia

 

The picture varies depending on sport and province, with more partnerships and pathways in British Columbia. But “there’s nothing that exists east of that, which is very devastating because there are a lot of great players.” Indeed, such is Marchand’s commitment to “play for a club that supports a vision and mission to support Indigenous athletes” that she undertook five-hour flights to play in BC League 1 for Nautsa’mawt FC, the country’s only Indigenous-owned club. However, after the end of the 2023 season, the club withdrew from the provincial competition.

It’s symptomatic of a wider piecemeal system across Canadian sport in which major leagues by and large abdicate responsibility, with a handful of clubs and universities attempting some outreach projects but never able to provide the required coverage. There are plenty of ideas for how to rectify the practical barriers, with more grassroots partnerships between professional leagues, schools, postsecondary institutions and communities coming top of the agenda.

SYDNEY – MARCH 31: NRL The Sydney Roosters and the New Zealand Warriors go head to head in a Scrum at the Sydney football Stadium. A roosters player receives the ball. March 31, 2012 Sydney Australia

The AFL has several grassroots Indigenous programs, and there is a National Indigenous Cricket Championship. In the rugby league, the Koori Knockout emerged from inner-city Sydney’s Aboriginal community over 50 years ago to provide further access for Indigenous players. It has grown into one of Australia’s largest Indigenous gatherings, and attracts contemporary superstars and aspiring players alike.

But it is not just as simple as more outreach programs, dedicated pathways, and subsidies. As in too many walks of life, societal change is required. In addition to the structural barriers, players face racism and discrimination, even from their own teammates and support staff. Marchand told SAY Magazine that she would be nicknamed ‘Pocahontas’ and how racism and discrimination nearly destroyed her career.

There were no support systems to tackle the “underlying toxicity” whilst even at Nautsa’mawt FC, non-Indigenous players would be favoured over Indigenous ones. She suggested more Indigenous coaching modules with multiple layers of training and education for coaching and players, possibly with an oath to forego racism and discrimination that incorporates a cultural safety component. 

Fundamentally, sport can only have so much of an impact in a structurally discriminatory society, and Australia is no stranger to these issues. The limitations of sport as an influence were demonstrated by Australians voting ‘No’ to the Voice (which aimed to enshrine acknowledgment of and consultation with First Nations into the constitution) despite sporting endorsements.

However, just because there are limitations, does not mean that action should be avoided, nor that genuinely substantive change can be affected. At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, 400-meter gold medallist Cathy Freeman defied a ban to perform a victory lap with both the national and Aboriginal flag. In 2015, North Queensland Cowboys captain Jonathan Thurston celebrated the grand final victory on the pitch with his daughter holding a black doll. In 2020, Australia’s female

soccer team, boasting two Indigenous players, proudly flew the black, red, and yellow Aboriginal flag. It was a way to “represent our people on the world stage that would show the rich culture that we have in Australia and support against discrimination and inequality,” in the words of striker Kyah Simon, who cited Freeman as an inspiration to herself and teammates.

These are moments that capture the public zeitgeist—powerful symbols of not only the potential that Indigenous athletes can have in their respective sport, but also of their right to inhabit the national sporting conscience, that with the right measures and hard work, success can be achieved and dreams can come true. Of course, it will take funding and dedicated programs, and there are limits on just how much restitutive impact sport can have. When society continues to operate in a discriminatory manner and is so divided that any good-faith measures are open to malignment and wilful misinterpretation, there is a natural disincentive to take proactive action.

Addressing the barriers that prevent Indigenous youth from chasing their dreams is not only worthwhile but will also have a galvanizing effect for the future. Inspiring the next generation is an oft-quoted cliché, but it nonetheless remains true that visible (and numerous) role models can have an activating and motivational impact on young followers, convincing them that it is possible to achieve ultimate sporting glory. As Marchand said, “The priority is exposure and getting the kids hooked and having role models in the community.”

 

Thomas Law is a writer and MA candidate at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. He has written for the Koori Mail, an Indigenous Australian-owned newspaper.