Q&A with Hockey Canada's VP of diversity and inclusion, Irfan Chaudhry

Chaudhry will join Hockey Canada after serving as the director of the office of human rights, diversity and equity at MacEwan University.

Irfan Chaudhry will be assuming the role of vice-president of diversity and inclusion at Hockey Canada in April. (Photo via Twitter)
Irfan Chaudhry will be assuming the role of vice-president of diversity and inclusion at Hockey Canada in April. (Photo via Twitter)

Hockey Canada hired Irfan Chaudhry as its first-ever vice president of diversity and inclusion on March 17. Chaudhry will officially start in his new role on April 12, joining Hockey Canada from MacEwan University, where he most recently worked as its director of the office of human rights, diversity and equity.

I spoke to Chaudhry on Wednesday afternoon in a wide-ranging 20 minute conversation over Zoom, where he spoke about his thoughts on his new role, the role of media, and his outlook on how to actualize diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at Hockey Canada among other topics.

What compelled you to join Hockey Canada, especially at this critical juncture of the organization's history?

We all know what’s happening in this transformative time. I’ve been involved with the group in an ad-hoc capacity over the last couple of years through the EDI advisory group (Hockey Canada Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Group) and just learning a little bit more about what the organization and some of their members were looking for in terms of supports around diversity and inclusion initiatives.

It was one of those things where given my experience in other areas, I felt there were some good connection points that I could bring to the table. It’s really also inspiring to see many of the memberships are already establishing their own EDI committees. I think a lot of the work has already started in the context of what’s been going as a whole with the organization and the country regarding hockey in Canada.

It was just one of those interesting moments where I felt given the involvement I’ve had over the last number of years with the group. Given the work I’ve done with Grow The Game, the anti-racism resources for hockey hub we established a few years back through federal funding. It felt like a really good moment to contribute in a positive way at a time where I think the work is much-needed, in a sector that’s much-loved. The work is really needed, of course.

What have your initial discussions been like with the new board of directors in regards to eliminating racism, homophobia, transphobia and sexual assault from programs under Hockey Canada's umbrella?

All of those things are really important. I’m still trying to acclimatize myself — I don’t officially start until April 12, of course, but those are all things top of mind, top of the radar.

There’s a need for awareness, education but also accountabilities in addressing some of those issues that are causing some concerns for a safe and respectful sporting environment. Not just on the ice, but also off the ice as well. Those are very, very strong isms that are relevant in the context of hockey that also to a broader degree are impacting society as a whole, that need to be addressed in many, many ways.

Grow the Game provided a ton of anti-racism resources for those willing to learn and implement into their coaching or teachings. Academics have argued for a long time for the need for this educational component. How do you plan to apply this type of educational programming into Hockey Canada's youth programming?

That’s where I’m really looking to connect once I start with some of the EDI committees or even EDI leads. Whether it’s membership groups or some of the EDI committees, the local groups have been doing some of this work for the last two years more formally. And really get a sense of what they are looking for.

Grow The Game, for example, when we held a one-day summit which was virtual, we were really honoured to have Harnarayan Singh (Hockey Night in Punjabi) host and moderate that discussion for us. And that was from my understanding and discussions with him, that was even the first time for him to explore his own experiences of racial discrimination he’s faced as a broadcaster in the sport.

One of the things we had done after we held the summit was send out a quick survey to see what things people were looking for and education was number one. I think it’s making sure people have the appropriate information that’s consumable to a broader public that’s not too academic in nature.

Now with this new role, there’s a dedicated space within Hockey Canada, that I can make sure not only are the members feeling supported and have somewhere to turn to provide some of that subject matter expertise and insight but even internally, from an organizational perspective, we can build that internally as well.

I think a dual approach really needs to be established here and I’m really excited to get started with that.

I know you've advocated for defunding the police. How do you get a national governing body like Hockey Canada to implement anti-racist and leftist policies into the core of its being?

I think I’d make that more broader in terms of the anti-racism aspects. I think we saw in the context of George Floyd, we saw many organizations, sporting organizations, come out with very, very strong messages related to countering not just anti-Black racism but the reemergence around racial equity as a whole.

But I think what we’ve seen in the three years now, both in the sporting world and the corporate world, haven't necessarily fulfilled those obligations from those statements. For me, I think it’s really important when you have those commitments and one of those work pieces we’ve been doing in the EDI advisory group has been to develop a starting plan for the EDI work that can be done at the national level, but also at the membership level, is really having that commitment.

Everyone can share broad, strong statements against being against different forms of bias and discrimination, whether it’s racism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, all of the above. I think it’s those action pieces that make an impact.

By action, I mean what happens when it’s more than just a statement? What happens when you have these friction points happening when you’re on a team, or on your social media platforms that highlight biases towards groups? What mechanisms are in place to make people feel protected? What mechanisms are in place to make sure members feel accountability will occur when someone does say something derogatory on the ice?

And you’ve seen with the most recent report that came through last year that tracks incidents of verbal taunts, insults, intimidation based on discriminatory grounds. I think those are key to be accountable, to feel some of the action. I think without data, often times you don’t get action. But when you have data highlighting how many times people have been taunted racially on the ice, in a hockey setting, that’s something that can’t be tolerated.

I think the action will speak louder than just the statements.

How do you ensure the concepts of diversity, equity and inclusion are more than just catchphrases? I’ve seen how people can manipulate language. You can see people often roll their eyes at the concept of DEI because they think it’s just been co-opted as a phrase. How do you actualize DEI?

It’s really bringing it down to the base principle of what DEI is. At the end of the day, it’s trying to understand different barriers that impact people from accessing this example of sport, and to have successful outcomes in accessing that sport.

Even with Hockey Canada having a mission of creating positive hockey experiences for everyone that’s involved in the sport, I think that to me is the base premise.

It’s always starting out in terms of do you agree with that base premise: do you want everyone to have positive experiences in the sport? Most people would likely say yes. OK, if that’s the case we have some barriers that we need to address. Some of them likely will make you uncomfortable.

I think that awareness piece really is key because you’re right.

When you have these types of alarmist frames of references around a discipline and now even a profession that’s really trying to make respectful and safe workplaces or work environments and sporting environments or learning environments, that’s the premise of that work.

It’s not trying to embed different philosophical or sociological ideas and then convert you so to speak. It’s really the base premise: how can we make the sport more accessible and better for everyone involved? I think people can get behind that.

I know that you've worked with the Edmonton Police Service. Could you walk me through what some of that work entailed? Do you believe that policing, and the function of the police is contradictory to the ideas of diversity and inclusion?

I’ll also add that I currently sit on the Edmonton Police Commission as well. You talk about having the ability to have positive change and impact at that level. I think that question is kind of interesting because it assumes that those who are trying to come into those spaces that want to break barriers and break systems, so to speak, aren’t able to do that with a lens within policing.

What I’ve learned when I was a crime analyst when I first started, a lot of it was compiling data on crime stats to see where crime trends were happening, but then also observing where people’s biases were in terms of how that data was interpreted.

I think when you’re on the inside, so to speak, you’re able to have some of the influence that can help change some of the processes or systems. Now even sitting on the Edmonton Police Commission, one of my big pushes is on the collection of race-based data. Now having that type of influential position allows me to ensure that it’s done in a way that’s respectful to people who are involved in that collection but also doesn’t impact communities of colour in negative ways.

Now in this role with Hockey Canada, having that awareness, having that similar mindset of how we can improve and have a good transformation happen, I think the skill sets developed along the way can definitely supplement some of those changes I’m hoping to see.

What would you like the media's relationship to be with Hockey Canada? Perhaps more specifically, media that aim to be critical of Hockey Canada as a governing body or are tasked with criticizing institutions?

I think that’s a key role. I think that those questions, as hard as they can be to address or to hear, I think they’re critical. As long as they’re done in respectful ways that encourage transparency. I think at the end of the day, even alluding to your previous question, build trust, then I think those questions are critical.

My hope is that anytime these tough questions are asked, as they should be, the response given is sincere and is something that can provide information. That’s been one of my observations even with being part of the police commission: I’ve noticed anytime earlier on when a response was being asked for, it was often being given in a way that didn’t provide a response. I respectfully challenged that. I would say ‘the media have rightfully have a question, or city council sometimes even have questions, we should do our best to answer as directly as possible.’

And if we don’t have the answer, we should say we will do our work to get that for you. Or just be open and say ‘we need more time to get that information or we don’t have an answer for you right now.’

I think having those open dialogues and being able to take those questions. Through criticism and critique, that’s the way you improve. Being open to that dialogue in respectful ways and those conversations, it’s very, very important.

TSN’s Rick Westhead reported last month about how the Greater Toronto Hockey League blocked Akim Aliu’s bid to run a grassroots organization with house league clubs, all the way to the AAA level, where he would provide guaranteed spots for BIPOC players. What is your overall assessment of that?

Having to get a better assessment on how these types of membership organizations function. Wanting to connect with them at the local and grassroots level to really understand what those barriers might be, that’s something I’m really looking forward to doing once I officially start.

Accessibility to the sport, whether in Toronto, whether in Edmonton, whether in Montreal, we know that’s a huge barrier, specifically to people of colour and Indigenous communities to be able to access the sport in a way that provides meaningful inclusion.

I think one of the things with the EDI advisory group, some of the work has been looking at different opportunities for inclusion in the sport. I think connecting with some of those grassroots membership leagues, connecting with the members as a whole. Trying to get a sense of what they are hearing from their communities. What is needed and how can Hockey Canada support in a way that provides meaningful inclusion and positive experiences for those involved? That’s really going to be the focus, regardless of whether it’s a certain league or other leagues across the country.

When we look at it in terms of a systemic perspective, that’s a classic example of a systemic barrier. If you have inaccessible points of inclusion because of cost and that’s something across the country, that’s something that needs to be addressed. I think partnerships are key. I think someone had shared something with me that I had been tagged in: ‘This work won’t be done alone or in silos and it can’t be!’

All of us have a role to play in making this sport more inclusive. But I think under the umbrella of Hockey Canada, there’s likely some accountabilities that can be set. There’s also likely some shared frames of references that can be set, so people don’t feel like they’re doing this on their own. I think the example you shared is really important one to continue to look at, to address the larger issue of access into the sport, to make sure it is accessible.