Sports

West Shore rugby players take stand against toxic high-performance culture at Rugby Canada

Athletes decry culture of 'anxiety, depression, racism, eating disorders, low self-worth, [and] mental illness'

By Nina Grossman
May 4, 2021
Sports

West Shore rugby players take stand against toxic high-performance culture at Rugby Canada

Athletes decry culture of 'anxiety, depression, racism, eating disorders, low self-worth, [and] mental illness'

By Nina Grossman
May 4, 2021
Canada Women's 7s team plays against Team France in 2017. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Sports

West Shore rugby players take stand against toxic high-performance culture at Rugby Canada

Athletes decry culture of 'anxiety, depression, racism, eating disorders, low self-worth, [and] mental illness'

By Nina Grossman
May 4, 2021
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West Shore rugby players take stand against toxic high-performance culture at Rugby Canada
Canada Women's 7s team plays against Team France in 2017. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Rugby players know what they’re getting into when they join a national team: intense physical training, controlled diets, sleep and wellness schedules, all monitored and optimized to improve their abilities on the field. 

But the National Senior Women’s 7s (NSW7) team, rooted on Lək̓ʷəŋən territory in Langford, is calling out a more insidious side of high-level team sports. Current and former members of the team signed a call to action asking Rugby Canada to acknowledge and improve what they call an atmosphere of psychological abuse, harassment and bullying. 

The statement, signed by 37 athletes (more than 50% of all NSW7 players that have been involved in the centralized training program) was shared across their Facebook pages and Instagram accounts, with a boldfaced introduction: “THIS IS WHY NOW.”

“Athletes should never have to experience heightened anxiety, depression, racism, eating disorders, low self-worth, or mental illness as part of participating in sport of any kind,” the statement reads.

Frustrated with the findings of an independent conduct investigation launched at the end of January, the team is doubling down on calls to improve the competitive culture of the program. 

“You’re constantly in a state of having to prove yourself every single day,” says Pamphinette Buisa, a five-year member of the NSW7 team. The team is made up of 21 athletes, she explains, but only 13 or 14 are selected for annual world series tours, and only 12 of those teammates will actually play along the international stops. Those tours set the stage for an athlete’s Olympic candidacy, Buisa says, creating intense teammate-to-teammate competition. 

Pamphinette Buisa has been part of the NSW7 team for five years. Photo: Submitted

“How things are set up is that you’re basically pinned against each other, because that’s what high performance does. You want to be the best for your team, but also for yourself,” she says. “You want to be the best, and there’s limited time, limited space, limited resources—you’re constantly fighting for them.” 

That scarcity creates isolation, Buisa says, breaking down the unity of the team and leaving cracks often filled with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, low self-esteem, mental illness and racism. The impacts vary, she notes, depending on an athlete’s background, skin colour, sexual orientation and experience on the team.  

Rugby Canada, which administers men’s and women’s senior and junior clubs across the country, governs more than 30,000 registered participants. The national body is headquartered on Langford’s Glen Lake Road. 

On Jan. 31 2021, the NSW7 team filed a complaint under Rugby Canada’s Harassment and Bullying Policy. A subsequent third party investigation concluded that it “would not be viable” for head coach John Tait to resume his duties, and the coach resigned, leaving the interim technical leadership team in place for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.  

But the investigator, Win Win HR Solutions Inc., also concluded that the conduct referenced in the team’s complaint “was not behaviour which fell within the policy’s definition of harassment or bullying.” 

That finding pushed the rugby players to go public. 

“We followed the procedures outlined in Rugby Canada’s policy, which was put in place in 2013,” the statement reads. “We feel that this process failed to protect us and did not acknowledge the abuse and harassment that we believe we suffered.” 

Buisa is clear—this isn’t about individuals, it’s about a system. 

“Anybody who is in a position who can cause harm, typically they’re a symptom of a bigger issue,” she says. “When there is a lack of accountability, when they report to themselves, then there is no overseeing body to ensure that harm isn’t done.”

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On its Instagram account, the team posted a statement from a former player who says they left the team to focus on their mental health around 2014 and at that time, voiced and documented their concerns about toxic training. The statement says those concerns were brushed under the carpet. 

“I think it’s too easy to scapegoat and be like, ‘Oh it’s one person,’” Buisa says. “That misses the entire point. The issue is, structurally, how did this happen? Who does this person report to? We know who we report to, because if we don’t, we get cut.” 

Rugby Canada has since approved an updated Safe Sport Policy Manual and launched an independent assessment of the National Senior Women’s 7s program, along with others. The assessment will start after the Summer Olympics, and the outcomes will be made public. 

“We recognize that the players are frustrated and dismayed with the conclusion of the investigation,” said Rugby Canada CEO Allen Vansen. “There is an ongoing shift regarding what is considered to be appropriate behavior in sport, and it is important that Rugby Canada keeps current with these changes.”

Buisa says the team isn’t just taking a stand for rugby players, but for all athletes. A culture of fear and silence is pervasive in high-performance sports and it’s one that many are first introduced to in high school, or earlier, she says. 

“There’s not a lot of resources to fight against bullying or harassment, especially when positions of power come into play, structures that are beyond you come into play.” 

“I think that was the biggest realizing factor for us was...if we do nothing, nothing changes,” she adds. “Safe sport needs to be a priority for everybody, even if it’s somebody that wants to be a national player, even if it’s just in school. How do we facilitate that so individuals who want to participate in sport can (participate) and feel safe.”

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