Can new minister for sport Carla Qualtrough use her experience to create change?

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Can new minister for sport Carla Qualtrough use her experience to create change?
Can new minister for sport Carla Qualtrough use her experience to create change?

Wednesday's swearing-in of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet could have implications for the Canadian sports scene, particularly the choice of Delta (B.C.) MP Carla Qualtrough as minister for sport and persons with a disability. Qualtrough seems well-qualified for the job; she's been visually-impaired since birth, but became a successful Paralympic athlete and has since gone on to be a key administrator and executive in both Canadian and international Paralympic organizations, so she has substantial experience that should help her out here. However, the minister of sport role has always been a difficult one, with critics charging it's frequently just about photo ops, and it carries some unique challenges this time around, especially with the Canadian Olympic Committee dealing with the fallout of president Marcel Aubut's early-October resignation amidst a sexual-harassment scandal. The minister of sport often works closely with the COC, so there's a chance for Qualtrough to make a significant impact on the Canadian sports landscape. Will she be up to the task?

Qualtrough's background as both an athlete and an administrator is remarkable. She won three bronze medals in swimmming at the 1988 and 1992 Paralympic Games, has worked as a lawyer for the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal and the Canadian Human Rights Commission, has chaired the BC Minister’s Council on Employment and Accessibility, worked as director of inclusion for the Vancouver 2010 Legacies Now Society, and served as senior advisor on sport to the prime minister and as a special advisor to the director general of Sport Canada. She also was the International Paralympic Committee's legal officer for the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, was president of the Canadian Paralympic Committee from 2006 to 2010, has been on the board for the Canadian Centre for Ethics In Sport and has been named one of Canada's most influential women in sports six times. All of that varied experience should serve her very well in this new role, as she's seen the Canadian sports landscape from a wide range of perspectives. However, there are questions about just how much a minister of sport can do.

The position of minister of sport has existed in one form or another since John Diefenbaker's government, with Jay Monteith appointed as minister of national health and welfare in 1957 and adding the minister of amateur sport title in 1961. Plenty of notable politicians have held it since then, including Allan MacEachen, Marc Lalonde, Jean Charest, Sheila Copps, Denis Coderre and Peter Van Loan, but they're all remembered for things they did outside the sport portfolio, and there haven't been a ton of really memorable moments on the sport front. The position's been even less notable recently, as the sport portfolio has been held only by ministers of state (a junior member of cabinet) and secretaries of state (similar in function, but without a presence in cabinet) since 2007. There have been some important things done by the various holders of the sport portfolio, specifically in coordinating government efforts with the Canadian Olympic Committee and supporting that organization's various goals and programs, in developing some national health and wellness strategies, in aiding the Canadian Soccer Association to host events such as the U20 World Cup and the Women's World Cup,  and in providing funds for events such as the 100th Grey Cup celebrations in 2012, but some of the criticisms over the years of it being a photo-op-focused position have been accurate.

Will Qualtrough be able to change that? Well, advancements on the health and wellness front through sports are certainly possible, especially if she can work with new minister of health Jane Philpott. However, it's working with the Canadian Olympic Committee that may be even more important. There's a huge opportunity to implement important changes there and make it more athlete-focused and collaboratively-led; Aubut's tenure accomplished some positive things, but his top-down hierarchical focus also created plenty of problems. His departure amidst very serious sexual harassment allegations is a major black eye for the organization, too, and the revelations that have emerged since about many of the accuastions against him being overlooked for years illustrate further changes that are necessary at the COC to prevent anything similar from ever happening again. Interim COC president Tricia Smith issued a statement applauding Qualtrough's appointment Wednesday, so that's a good start. Qualtrough certainly won't be the only person involved in COC changes and reform, but she will have opportunities to work to make that organization better. If she can do so and play a role in setting the COC up for long-term success, she may be a very important minister indeed.

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