TOKYO — Before Canada’s women’s rugby sevens squad opens its medal quest at Tokyo 2020, there were some important issues they wanted to tackle first.
In fact, as the entire team addressed a virtual press conference Saturday, captain Ghislaine Landry was adamant that four prepared questions be read in a specific order — meaning they’d make statements, both in English and French, on a bullying and harassment claim against their former coach, on racial equality and on the discovery of the remains of hundreds of Indigenous children in unmarked graves at residential school sites before talk turned to their preparation over the past 12 months.
“A year ago, our team would be sitting here solely talking about the game — and the game is important to us and we are ready for that,” said Charity Williams, who made powerful remarks on the importance of representation. “But as we know, we are more than athletes. This is what it looks like when you decolonize your space.”
Williams is one of six returnees from a group that earned bronze in Rio de Janeiro.
The Canadians are once again considered medal contenders in Tokyo.
“I was the first Black woman to represent our team in the 2016 Olympics, and that was a huge honour. And today, we stand here with four BIPOC women,” said Williams, referring to teammates Pamphinette Buisa, Breanne Nicholas and Keyara Wardley. “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, what it means to be relational with one another.
“I’ve been on this team for eight years and from my experience, 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. My hope is our team continues a legacy of creating safe and empowering spaces and organizations across Turtle Island and the world.”
Saturday’s press conference started with each of the 13 players introducing themselves with their preferred pronouns and acknowledging the traditional territory lands for their respective hometowns.
They wore matching shirts that read “BIPOC Lives Matter” above a Rugby Canada logo.
Their orange masks also made a statement — “Every Child Matters.”
It’s unusual for athletes at the Olympics to meet the media in anything but their team-issued national apparel.
Kayla Moleschi was asked what it means to be representing Canada, one of the four pre-determined questions before reporters had an opportunity to follow up with their own.
“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,” Moleschi said. “We cannot reconcile with Indigenous communities without acknowledging the truth and realities.
“Our team acknowledges and stands in solidarity with the rightful stewards of these lands,” she added later. “We honour the children and the survivors of residential schools. We will continue to amplify the truth and fight to decolonize all spaces so that we can truly be intentional with reconciliation.”
This tight-knit team opens pool play Thursday against Brazil.
They made it clear Saturday they’re still not satisfied with the results of a complaint against former coach John Tait. An independent investigation ruled that the allegations in that claim did not fall under Rugby Canada’s definition of bullying and harassment, but Tait ultimately resigned in the spring.
“Although we feel the investigation process failed us, we will continue to work towards a positive and respectful training environment,” said Britt Benn in Saturday’s press conference. “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 can’t keep waiting for complaints and then take action. Instead, we need our sports organizations to take responsibility and ensure our environments are safe for our athletes.
“Today, we are proud of our team culture because of the changes made with leadership in our program.”
On Saturday, they made several strong statements as a squad.
Next, they want to make a run at gold at these pandemic-postponed Olympics.
“On the field, we were having pretty good results in the lead-up to last summer and probably would have competed for a medal. But off the field, we were struggling and weren’t reaching our full potential,” said Landry, Canada’s captain. “As you’ve heard, we’ve been through a lot together in the last year. We’ve stood up for what we believe is right and have learned and grown individually and as a group because of it. I am proud of everything we’ve put into this last year, proud of each athlete who has put their career on the line for change and proud that we can show up each day as our authentic selves. Looking back a year ago, we thought we were ready. Now, we know we are ready.”
Added Williams, asked if their impactful messages might take the focus away from what they’re hoping to accomplish on the pitch: “For those who think that 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 we are ready to compete for a gold medal.”