Three children laugh and dance in a gymnasium. One boy holds a soccer ball.

Embracing new beginnings: How sports welcome newcomers to Canada

My nine-year-old was breathless as he dashed out of school on a late spring afternoon, eager to share minute-by-details of his day.

“Mommy. MOMMY! There’s a new boy in my class and he doesn’t speak much French or English so it was hard to talk but we asked him if he wanted to play soccer with us at recess and it was awesome and then we all had surprise frozen yogurt together!”

I had to agree, that did sound like an awesome time—an icy cold treat on a hot day, a new friend in grade four, and another example of sports breaking down barriers and forging positive social interaction.

It’s not just in the schoolyard that Canadian newcomers are forging connections that extend beyond the boundaries of the playing field. Across the country, sports associations, clubs, and community groups are creating inclusive and accessible sports programs that promote inclusivity and embrace diversity.

A sense of belonging

Sport has long been recognized as a powerful catalyst for positive change—capable of transcending racial and cultural barriers, enhancing physical and mental well-being, and fostering meaningful connections across people who don’t look or speak alike. It’s the unifying nature of sports that helps empower individuals from diverse backgrounds, whether they’re at the pool, on a soccer field, or putting on skates for the first time.

As a board member of a large Montreal hockey association, I’ve been fortunate to be able to participate firsthand in welcoming new neighbours to our community through the NHL/NHLPA First Shift program. Designed to ease recent Canadians ages 6-10 and new-to-hockey families into the sport, the accessible and fun program provides head-to-toe equipment, expert fitting (so no worries about how short to cut a hockey stick), and on-ice sessions with coaches—all for an affordable price.

Watching young boys and girls from a diverse array of ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds come together with their high-fives and smiles after our end-of-session mini-game was something truly special. After the success of our first edition this past February, we’ve already reached capacity for the winter 2024 edition.

A kids' hockey team sits on the bench next to an outdoor rink as their two coaches give them instructions.

On the East Coast, the Ignite Soccer Club in Halifax has been offering soccer training for children and adults since 2020. Through its Newcomers Program, children ages 6-16 participate in 30 minutes of soccer training and 30 minutes of play twice a week. To embrace participants of all ages, the club’s experienced coaches are assisted by apprentice newcomer coaches.

“Our team [of coaches] shares our club’s values and passion for inspiring and educating youth players no matter their background,” says co-founder Adrian Oncel. Oncel started the club alongside Oussama Bedoui. They’re both first-generation immigrants to Canada who know firsthand the role that sports play in the social inclusion of newcomers and their children.

“Being exposed to the day-to-day challenges newcomers are facing when it comes to accessing community sports, we decided to make it a little bit easier for them by starting this program,” says Oncel. “We were grateful for the help we received when we came to Canada, so giving back to the community came as a natural thing to do.”

In addition to its coed program, the club also offers a program tailored specifically to the needs of girls and women ages 4-20. Participants meet for an hour twice a week and are coached by apprentice female newcomers and mentored by Ignite Soccer Club female coaches.

The benefits of the club are paying off both off and on the field. Teams made entirely of newcomers excelled in season finals and provincial tournaments last year, in what was the first season of organized soccer for most of the players.

“Dedicated staff and the love for soccer made this possible,” says Oncel. Their advice for organizations hoping to implement similar programs?

“Engage the community and listen with an open mind.”

Sports uniting communities

“It takes an adjustment to come into Canada, but sports provides this opportunity for a common language, a common place where people can come together,” says Carolyn Trono in this video about the Winnipeg Newcomer Sport Academy (WNSA).

Founder of the academy and the director of quality sport development at Sport for Life, Trono heads up the team that provides year-round, high-quality, affordable multisport programming to newcomer children and youth. A variety of developmentally appropriate sports promote growth and positive integration as participants settle into their new community. Swimming lessons, skating, basketball, volleyball, baton, flag football, fencing, badminton, soccer, and martial arts are some of the sports that kids can experience. The academy also provides a “Girls in Sport” initiative to give newcomer girls easier access to sports and facilitate their long-term participation, and launched a one-week summer camp this year to reach even more children. 

Two smiling children play badminton in a park.

The program has ignited a passion within several of the children. Originally from Ethiopia, Milki learned to skate with WNSA and now plays on a community hockey team. A family who came from Eritrea is now rooted firmly in the enriching world of sports, with one son on the Manitoba track & field team, another playing high-level soccer, and their father working at KidSport Manitoba.

Trono says one of the keys to success and sustainability is creating relationships with ethnocultural communities to co-create suitable programs.

“Truly understand the barriers [to participation in sports programs] and try to remove them—providing bus tickets may or may not be the solution to transportation. And don’t settle for mediocre. Strive to offer the best you can.”

Other community initiatives include the Action for Healthy Communities After School Sport Programs with the city of Edmonton. Soccer for girls and boys, multisport for girls with Girls in Sport Alberta, and Hip Hop Ballet with Ballet Edmonton are all available for free to youth newcomers.

In Calgary, the Football Hockey Link (FHL) supports the integration of culturally diverse children and youth with free football and hockey activities throughout the year and summer sports camps. Children learn the fundamentals of the two sports and FHL supports families looking to transition to local sports associations.

And in PEI, the Immigrant & Refugee Services Association PEI Youth Settlement Services gives school-aged newcomers access to free programs and activities that celebrate multiculturalism, inclusion, and being active. Among the activities are hip-hop dance classes, a “Dance like the Wind” workshop, basketball clinics, and training sessions for volunteer coaches through the “Sports 4 Newcomers” program.

What about you? Have you benefited from similar programs or would like to see your local sports association or community group offer initiatives like these? Let us know in the comments.

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