As Canadian athletes, we have it better today than at any other time in our country’s sporting history. The financial support made available to both able-bodied and para high performance athletes in recent years has risen to an all-time high. Policies such as the direct athlete support provided through Sport Canada’s Athlete Assistance Program, the core funding provided to National Sport Organizations, the unprecedented 5 million dollars over five years extended to the Canadian Paralympic Committee after the Vancouver 2010 Games and the Own the Podium initiative created in 2005 collectively make Canada a world leader in high performance sport speak. More money than ever before is being poured into our Canadian sport system.
Speaking as a national team athlete, the support is terrific — and you never want to bite the hand that feeds you! But this does not mean that we shouldn’t take an objective look at what is happening around us. Working in the disability health promotion field has been an eye-opener for me because, in truth, the health of Canadians with a disability falls under the radar. As para athletes, we are being supported in our pursuit of excellence as never before. Yet our federal government is tuned out as to the exclusion, stigma and isolation that sees one in seven Canadians with a disability relegated to the sidelines.
The organization I work for, the Active Living Alliance for Canadians with a Disability (ALACD), was created in 1989 to promote physical activity as an integral part of the daily lives of Canadians with disabilities. Access to physical activity is especially important for people with a disability as it enhances health and wellness, prevents development of secondary disabling conditions, reduces depression and isolation, improves physical literacy, promotes independence and mitigates the burden on our health care system. ALACD leverages a well-established grassroots national delivery system of 160 partner organizations to deliver awareness and first-contact initiatives promoting the inclusion of Canadians of all abilities in active living opportunities. ALACD programs have been adopted in Sweden, Jamaica, Australia and South Korea. But in recent years, the work of the organization has been compromised by significant decreases in federal funding — its future is in question. This is consistant with a decline in federal support of health promotion across all sectors — and sharply contrasted with the substantial investment in high performance sport!
I will be the first to acknowledge the perceived bias here — I work for an organization which may soon have to close its doors. But quite aside from that, this story needs to be told because it is not being heard. It is lost in the hype of recent announcements such as that made by federal Minister of State for Sport Bal Gosal committing over 2 million dollars of additional funding to eleven organizations that oversee summer sports. From an athlete’s perspective, this support is appreciated. But you need only look at the timing of this announcement — early March, just a few weeks shy of the end of the fiscal year — to realize that it feels like leftover money. Sport grabs the media’s attention and its hard not to take the cynical view that diverting unused dollars to these sports is an opportunistic public relations stunt. Two million dollars (or a fraction of that amount!) would go a long way in the non-for-profit sector and would greatly enhance the capacity of organizations with the expertise and a proven track record of successful health promotion initiatives to do what they do well. With better planning and a view to the system as a whole, could there have been an opportunity to invest in our physical activity and sport infrastructure so as to build it from the bottom up rather than the top down?
Our government is not completely oblivious to the issue. In 2007 the government launched the Canadian Children’s Fitness Tax credit (CFTC). The CFTC offers a non-refundable tax credit of up to $500 (non-refundable tax credits only help those who pay tax) which parents may claim upon registering their child in an approved physical activity program, meaning that parents are eligible for a maximum rebate of $75. Children with a disability are eligible for the tax credit up to the age of eighteen as opposed to the eligible age of sixteen among able-bodied children. Parents of children with a disability may claim an additional $500 on top of the basic allowance as long as a minimum of $100 is paid on registration or membership fees in a prescribed program of physical activity. These parents are also able to include specialized equipment as well as transportation costs in their claim (for further information here).
But is there any evidence to suggest that the CFTC has led to increased physical activity levels among Canadian children and youth with a disability? It may be too early to know for sure, but it seems unlikely that the tax credit has had a major positive impact. A 2010 paper published by Dr John Spence and colleagues (click here for full document) states that, generally, it is the parents with higher incomes who register their children in organized physical activity programs. These individuals tend to be more aware of the CFTC and to have used it in the past. The CFTC seems to benefit those already enrolled in physical activity programs but does little to attract new participants. Spence and colleagues stated that a lack of resources meant they were unable to isolate CFTC usage among families with a child with a disability but that they predict the uptake of the CFTC among these families would be low and they are committed to further research into this area.
Then there are those parents who do not wish to register their child in organized sport — they will not benefit from the CFTC incentive. This point is made by economist Kevin Milligan in an April 2011 blog in the Globe and Mail (read article here). Milligan asks us to consider the people who like to go running or who prefer gardening? The tax credit is intended to promote health among Canadian children and youth but it does so by subsidizing structured programs — one aspect of community physical activity only. Very often, organized programs are inaccessible, unaffordable and intimidating to a person with a disability. It’s probably safe to say that the experience a person has early-on with physical activity will very likely define their thinking and ultimately the place that sport and recreation will play in their lives. Milligan identifies the need for programs aimed at education and targeted to at-risk communities. Providing funding to physical activity programs directly, or offering subsidized program access to low-income families, is another alternative proposed by obesity researcher Travis Saunders.
What seems clear is that our government regards high performance sport and health promotion as mutually exclusive. They are not. Today’s generation of high performance athletes may be poised to pursue medals this summer. But what about tomorrow? The bottom is falling out of our sport delivery system because the government does not recognize the interconnection of health and sport. They are ignoring the historical precedent wherein health promotion and sport were overseen by a single federal secretariat up to the early 1990’s. Incidentally, Canada was among the very best Paralympic nations at that time — we have slipped in recent years! There are other factors which contribute to this shift including the emergence of developing nations as Paralympic powerhouses, but the close ties between health and sport are part of the backdrop at that time. Today, organizations who are in the business of health promotion are increasingly trying to align themselves with Sport Canada because the funding available through this channel is the key to their survival. For many of these organizations, working with the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) is essentially a lost cause and the “relationship” between PHAC and Sport Canada is disfunctional and broken.
What will help to fix our system is the recognition that health and sport go together. Our government has an opportunity to support effective and systematic program delivery in building a culture of health for Canadians of all abilities. Inclusive physical activity can be a catalyst to future success in every arena of Canadian life, most notably the arena of athlete development. Ultimately I think it comes down to a hard choice between instant gratification and making a commitment to the whole system that will lead to sustained involvement at every point along the participation and sport continuum. I hope that in the years to come our government will serve Canada well by doing the right thing.