Langford-based Olympic women’s rugby team talk about racism, prejudice, wear BIPOC shirts

The Langford-based Canadian women’s sevens rugby Olympic team launched a blistering broadside Saturday in a media conference, mostly about societal issues, while wearing black T-shirts that read “BIPOC Lives Matter” and orange masks reading “Every Child Matters.”

It’s unusual for athletes to appear at an official Games function not wearing their Team Canada kit.

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“A year ago, our team would be sitting here solely talking about the game,” said veteran Canadian player Charity Williams.

“And the game is important to us and we are ready for that. But as we know, we are more than athletes. This is what it looks like when you decolonize your space.”

Williams is among six returnees from the Canadian bronze-medallist team at Rio 2016, which was a milestone for female sport in Canada, as rugby sevens made its Olympic debut.

But a lot has changed since then, on and off the pitch. Williams and Canadian teammate and former University of Victoria Vikes star Pamphinette Buisa helped organize the Black Lives Matter rallies last year in Centennial Square.

“I was the first Black woman to represent our team in the 2016 Olympics, and that was a huge honour,” said Williams, during the media conference in Tokyo.

“And today we stand here with four BIPOC women [herself, Buisa, Keyara Wardley, Breanne Nicholas]. I am so proud to be standing here with such strong BIPOC people but I’m also proud to stand here with this team. This past year, this team has taken steps back to unlearn and relearn what it means to be allies.” (BIPOC is an abbreviation for Black, Indigenous and other people of colour.)

Of her eight years training with the team in Langford, Williams said: “I’ve never felt like there is a true place for me here. But sitting here today, I can say I trust my teammates are open to listening and learning.”

A players’ revolt in Langford this spring led to the departure of head coach John Tait of Mill Bay, who guided Canada to the podium at Rio. The players were not satisfied by the results of an independent investigation commissioned by Rugby Canada that cleared Tait after looking into their complaints of bullying and harassment.

“Our daily training environment was toxic. Although we feel the investigation process failed us, we will continue to work towards a positive and respectful training environment,” said player Britt Benn.

“Sport Canada and Rugby Canada have since updated their policies and procedures in order to better protect the safety of their athletes. We hope that all sports organizations will adopt an approach that is more preventative and less reactive. We need our sports organizations to take responsibility and ensure our environments are safe for our athletes.”

Tait said in May he was not surprised that the investigation concluded that the complaints were unfounded: “Regardless, I no longer desire to continue as the national team head coach. This entire experience has been extremely difficult and stressful for my family and I.”

The Canadian players on Saturday also touched on another issue during four pre-determined questions the team demanded be asked by the moderator before the media was allowed a question. One of those pre-determined questions was what does it mean to be representing Canada in the Tokyo Olympics.

Player Kayla Moleschi answered: “With the 1,794 and counting bodies of Indigenous children being recovered from residential schools, this question needs to be what every Canadian is asking themselves. We are all a part of colonialism. We cannot reconcile with Indigenous communities without acknowledging the truth and realities. Our team acknowledges and stands in solidarity. We will continue to amplify the truth and fight to decolonize all spaces.”

Added team captain Ghislaine Landry: “It’s been a powerful year and we’ve learned a lot.”

Williams bristled when asked a question from the media if the issues raised by the team, as important as they are, were relevant to the reason they are in Tokyo and the task at hand: “For those who think this is a distraction, I would suggest you rewind the tape and listen to everything we just said. Because we are proud to be on this team, and of showing up as ourselves, and we are 100 percent ready to compete for the gold medal.”

World third-ranked Canada opens play Wednesday against Brazil in Tokyo.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com

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