Sports in Canada have been elevated in the new federal cabinet as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau chose a Paralympian, human-rights lawyer and veteran sports administrator as Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities.
Carla Qualtrough, 44, is a political rookie, having delivered a big win for the Liberals in the riding of Delta in the Vancouver suburbs, but her roots in sports are lifelong. She was born visually impaired and has won three Paralympic bronze medals, in swimming relays – one in Seoul in 1988 when she was 17, and two in Barcelona in 1992.
She then became a lawyer, focused on human rights, and was deeply involved in Canadian sports behind the scenes, including as president of the Canadian Paralympic Committee from 2006-10, and as a board member who helped Toronto secure the Pan American Games.
Naming Qualtrough as a full minister, rather than the typical junior position allocated to sport in cabinet in recent years, was welcomed by the sports community. The breadth of Qualtrough’s experience, from competing to her extensive work as a senior organizer, also won praise.
“Carla understands what it takes,” said Gaétan Tardif, medical program director of the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, and current president of the Canadian Paralympic Committee. “She’s thoughtful. She’s analytical.”
John Furlong, chairman of Own The Podium and former boss of the Vancouver Olympic organizing committee, worked with Qualtrough in the years ahead of the 2010 Games, when she contributed to the roots of Own The Podium and was a key leader behind the success of Canadian Paralympians. “It’s a gold-medal day for sport in Canada,” Furlong said. “The Prime Minister’s an athlete. This is a real message that this matters to Canada. We’ve come a long way in the past decade in believing in the power of sport.”
This is the first time ever that the description “persons with disabilities” was included in a cabinet title. Most recently, disabilities had been a responsibility under employment and social development.
Qualtrough arrives in a challenging moment for Canada in elite international sports. The country made a splash in 2010, when it won the most gold medals at the Vancouver Olympics and finished third in medals overall. In Sochi in 2014, Canada slipped somewhat – to third in gold and fourth in the overall count. In its current annual report, Own The Podium – which has directed spending of $500-million over the past decade – talks about the need for new strategies to “ensure our position as a leading winter nation does not erode further.”
In the Summer Games, Canada aims to be a top 10 country. In London in 2012, it ranked 14th in medals, with 18. One forecast for Rio de Janeiro next year sees Canada at 12th in medals, with 21, but in 31st when it comes to gold, with only two predicted.
The Liberals’ goals for sport are not clear. Despite sport’s improved position in cabinet, it was not mentioned in the Liberals’ 88-page election platform. There are a range of potential missions, from promoting sport among citizens for health reasons to the moments of glory in winning gold medals.
The job in cabinet has rarely been held by someone with an elite athletic background. Thirty years ago, in Brian Mulroney’s first government, Otto Jelinek, a former world champion figure skater, was minister of state for fitness and amateur sport.
A cabinet position for sport was first created in 1961, when Prime Minister John Diefenbaker added the title of minister of amateur of sport to his existing minister of national health and welfare.
Sport was generally tied to a full cabinet position until the 1980s, before rising again in the 1990s. Since 1999, sport has been a junior cabinet job, except for one year, 2006, Stephen Harper’s first as prime minister.
To one leading sports voice, Qualtrough should focus on deciding what Canada wants for sports.
J.D. Miller, co-founder of B2ten, the Montreal group that connects private cash with potential Olympic medalists, said Canada needs to define its goals and align many disparate groups, from the provinces and federal government to the many sports organizations.
“We need to find a consensus as to what sports matter to Canadians,” Miller said. There is, of course, a cash crunch: Canada spends – but not as much as some competitors. “How do we best spend our limited money?” Miller asked.
But the foundation is healthy citizens. As Dr. Tardif said: “I could bend your ear for an hour. If we could get people more active, we’ll be in a better place as a country.”
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