Facing the threat of legal action from Canada Soccer, the Canadian women's team has reluctantly agreed to return to training and play in the SheBelieves Cup.
The women's job action was short-lived — they only missed one day of training in Florida — but their labour dispute with their governing body is far from over. And the ill will has no doubt multiplied after emergency talks Saturday forced them back onto the pitch.
"To be clear. We are being forced back to work for the short term," Canada captain Christine Sinclair said on social media. "This is not over. We will continue to fight for everything we deserve and we will win. The SheBelieves is being played in protest."
Added forward Janine Beckie: "We will continue to demand more. Lasting change is a fight we’re in for the long haul."
In a statement, the women said Canada Soccer told them it considered their job action was an unlawful strike and would trigger legal action.
"They told us that if we did not return to work — and did not commit today to playing in Thursday’s game against the United States — they would not only take legal action to force us back to the pitch, but would consider taking steps to collect what could be millions of dollars in damages from our Players’ Association and from each of the individual players currently in camp," the women said.
"As individual players who have received no compensation yet for any of our work for Canada Soccer in 2022, we cannot afford the risks that personal action against us by Canada Soccer will create. Because of this, we have advised Canada Soccer that we will return to training (Sunday) and will play in the SheBelieves Cup as scheduled."
The women maintain that Canada Soccer’s cuts to the national team programs are "unacceptable."
"We continue to believe that Canada Soccer needs to do more to support our programs and our players. And we continue to believe that unless we stand up together and demand more, nothing will ever change."
In a separate statement, Canada Soccer said the players "were not and are not in a legal strike position under Ontario labour law."
"Canada Soccer was not prepared to jeopardize the SheBelieves Cup tournament, the preparation it would afford the women’s national team for the upcoming World Cup, nor the experience it would afford countless fans who had undoubtedly travelled to Orlando to see their Olympic heroes," it said.
The governing body said it took "the necessary steps" to ensure that such games will be played as scheduled.
"Canada Soccer has heard the women’s national team and has committed to a path to addressing each of the demands made by the players. But Canada Soccer knows that is not enough. There is still work to do."
It said a labour settlement "once concluded, will be a historic deal that will deliver real change and pay equity in Canadian Soccer. It is a goal worth getting right."
Before Saturday's meeting with Canada Soccer general secretary Earl Cochrane and president Nick Bontis, Sinclair and other players said they could no longer represent the federation unless the issues around the national teams were resolved.
They are demanding the same backing in preparing for this summer's Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand that the men received last year before Qatar. And they want Canada Soccer to open its books.
Canada Soccer traditionally publishes its financials in March. But Sinclair says the women's team can't negotiate in the dark — without knowing what was spent on the men's team.
The governing body has repeatedly said that pay equity will be a pillar of the new deal.
That has not been the case in the past. In 2021, Canada Soccer spent $11 million on the men's team and $5.1 million on the women. Sinclair notes some $2.5 million of that women's funding came from Own The Podium, not Canada Soccer.
Sinclair also points out that the men played 19 games that year, including 14 World Cup qualifiers. The women played 17 and won Olympic gold.
"We are not mad at the men's team. They deserve what they get. They deserved to be treated how they were treated last year (a World Cup year). These teams deserve to have proper preparation for the biggest stage. We're just asking for the same," she said before Saturday's meeting.
"The financial struggles of the CSA (Canadian Soccer Association) didn't just happen overnight. People made decisions in recent years that have put us here. And it just constantly seems like it's the women's team that has to take the brunt of it."
Canada Soccer's total revenue for 2021 was $33.1 million while reported expenses were $28.1 million.
The women took part in two training sessions in Florida — with some wearing their shirts inside out as a protest — before deciding to take job action Friday.
Canada Soccer issued a seven-paragraph statement Friday saying it has "a proven track record of supporting women’s soccer."
"We presented an equity-based proposal to our national teams and their counsel several months ago, and we are still waiting for a definitive response to the terms of that proposal," the statement said.
Sinclair disputes that, saying Canada Soccer told them that it had to "pause" the compensation package and restructure its latest offer.
"They flat-out just lied in their statement. … And now the public's being lied to," she said. "That's how they operate."
Sinclair, the world's leading goal-scorer who has won 319 caps for Canada, says Canada Soccer has underestimated the women.
"Our perspective is that they've always just assumed we would never take the next step. We've always tried to do things the nice, polite, right way, if you will. And it's gotten us nowhere. If you look around women's football in general, a lot of women's teams have had to take this stand at some point to truly make a difference. And this is our time."
Sinclair says the men's team is solidly behind the women. Both sides are upset at budget cuts to their programs this year — and what they say is lack of financial transparency by Canada Soccer.
"We're fighting for the future of this program," said Sinclair.
The women say the number of players and staff brought into the current camp has been cut, as has its duration. Youth camps have also been reduced as has the number of senior camps this year.
Sinclair says the team has been told it will be shut down for the year after the World Cup and a two-legged Olympic playoff with Jamaica in September.
Women who came to the Florida camp from Europe travelled business class while those in North America were supposed to fly economy-plus. Beckie said she had to pay for the upgrade to economy-plus herself for the flight from Portland.
Hotel accommodations in Orlando are also problematic, with the women sharing rooms.
While Sinclair, who is rooming with Sophie Schmidt, stressed that travel and hotel conditions are not the "be-all and end-all," she noted that the men flew business class and had their own hotel rooms in preparing for their World Cup.
The women sent Canada Soccer a list of their demands Thursday, opting to take job action when they did not get a response. They include playing a home game ahead of the World Cup.
Part of the issue is Canada Soccer's deal with Canada Soccer Business, which represents all corporate partnerships and broadcast rights related to Canada Soccer’s core assets including its national teams.
Under the deal, Canada Soccer Business pays Canada Soccer an agreed-on amount each year. It keeps the rest under an agreement that helps fund the Canadian Premier League.
Canada Soccer saw the deal — announced in March 2018 — as short-term pain for long-term gain. But it soon found its hands tied in terms of reaping the financial awards of the women winning Olympic gold and the men becoming the toast of CONCACAF in returning to the World Cup for the first time in 36 years.
The prize money from the men's World Cup — Canada earned US$9 million from the tournament purse plus US$1.5 million to prepare for the soccer showcase — is not part of the Canada Soccer Business deal.
"How Canada Soccer is allocating or using funds is unclear and cloaked in secrecy," the men said in a statement Friday.
The women say the deal with Canada Soccer Business has to be torn up. And their statement Friday called for "new leadership" if the governing body is "not willing or able" to support the team.
In their statement, the men also demanded action.
"If the current leadership of Canada Soccer is not willing to take immediate action to respond to the players’ demands and concerns, we ask that the Minister of Sport, the Honourable Pascale St-Onge, intervene to remove them, and mandate that new Canada Soccer leadership be named and required to comply with its mandated objectives and all legal requirements, as supported by federal funding," the men said.
Both teams are currently negotiating labour agreements with Canada Soccer. The women's previous deal expired at the end of 2021.
The men are negotiating their first formal agreement in the wake of forming their own players association, the Canada Men’s National Soccer Team Players Association.
The women have their own group, the Canadian Soccer Players' Association.
The Canadian men boycotted a planned friendly with Panama in Vancouver last June over the ongoing labour dispute.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 11, 2023.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press