There are few times that I feel very encouraged by anti-racism efforts in sport. One if those times was attending the launch of United We Curl's #IbelongUWC campaign.
I have only been to a bonspiel (curling event) once before as an adult, although I have watched on television. I come from Halifax, the land of Canada's curling queen, Colleen Jones. I have always been interested in curling but was committed to playing soccer at a young age.
But was curling, a predominantly white sport, really for me or people like me? Most curlers insist that it is, and an organization of racialized curlers is working to make it as accessible as possible to everyone.
Like many sports initiatives and organizations, diversity, equity and inclusion components came to a crossroads after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. From a time of anger and sadness, a group was created that is marinated in the love of sport and that carries hope on its mantle. Its founding members are curlers from all communities and open to all genders, races and abilities.
Last week, United We Curl (UWC) hosted a launch event of #IBelongUWC, a partnership with Rogers Media All In. It was hosted by Sportsnet's Donnovan Bennett with a panel of speakers including Dr. Richard Norman, Sabeena Islam and Brittany Tran — all directors of United We Curl, with now-retired Olympic curler Joanne Courtney.
They all spoke about their experiences on the ice and in the curling communities they are a part of. But they also spoke about how much they love the sport and what it can do to be better and extend itself to more Canadians.
Part of what UWC seeks to do within the curling landscape is share knowledge and raise awareness, create safe spaces for different cultures and understand why the existing model may not feel the most welcoming for people new to curling culture.
Islam explained that they had an event in her hometown of Kingston, Ont., and it was specifically for youth from racialized communities.
"Many of the parents who signed their kids up said that they felt more comfortable because there was a person of colour there," she said.
Islam admitted that she carries a score terminal in her purse at all times. Curling is about community and that is something that resonates with many people across the country and particularly those who have a place in a cultural or ethnic community.
But there are barriers. Islam told the crowd about how buying a beer for the losing team in an after-party is an expected part of curling culture. But as a Muslim, Islam doesn't drink alcohol nor will she buy it for anyone else. So that could be awkward and create distance for her.
"I'm happy to buy you a diet coke, but not a beer," she said.
Norman is a scholar who works with the organization but consults on futures in sport as well as diversifying sport culture. He said during the event that it is important to keep spaces for racialized people within the sport as opposed to a process of "assimilation" within curling.
"Curling is an adaptive sport," Norman said. "It can be whatever we want to make it."
Those words can be transformativie and inspiring for people looking to participate in something new. Part of the campaign launch includes images, a video featuring models from different racialized communities. There are also calls within communities and they are looking to approach school as well.
An introduction from Curling Clubs, many who have shown interest in participating, could be anything from teaching the "quick 'n' dirty" rules to offering a street curling experience, which then would move to the ice when the basics are understood.
One of the founding partners of United We Curl is Goldline, a company that specializes in curling supplies. Erin Flowers, runs the company started by her father, Ed. Flower's commitment and presence is as someone who understands the power of sport and is an ally to marginalized people. An ally is not something that is self-appointed but rather granted.
Goldline's work is a blueprint for who to amplify and support DEI efforts in sports. Like the entire campaign, Flowers is about action.
The work around allyship is not easy and something that Courtney understands very well. Courtney said for curlers immersed in the culture, it may seem as if everything is fine but they can sometimes lack understanding for the need to have difficult but necessary conversations. Sometimes those conversations will not be easy and people will make mistakes.
"You just have to step in this," Courtney said. "That's where the country needs to go."
She detailed how sometimes people don't want to offend someone so they don't engage for fear of being accused of being racist.
"It's offensive to sit on the sidelines!" Courtney said.
Curling is community
I can't stop thinking about those words and how they can be applied across the board for sport in Canada. What we fear prevents us from moving forward. Working sincerely with an intention to better sport is not seamless nor is it always happy. There are bumps and challenges but the work of unlearning is not simple. And it must be done.
Much of what I have learned about curling has been from my CBC Sports colleague, Devin Heroux. He is connected so closely to the sport and understands the intentionality behind UWC's campaign and was at the event.
He knows so much about the heartbeat of curling and I asked him about why UWC is so important
"When Canadians talk about curling they often follow it up with speaking about how much it centres around community," Heroux said. "And that is true. For many, curling has been a place to feel seen and has provided a sense of belonging.
"But what's also true is that the curling community in Canada is predominantly white and steeped in traditions that do not represent diverse cultures. What United We Curl's I Belong campaign does is allow people of colour to feel seen in this space — and in doing so will undoubtedly change the change in this country."
I'm looking forward to connecting people I know with the sport and going to a bonspiel. I also have a lot of faith in the approach from UCW and know it isn't a sprint but a marathon, as is all of the work in anti-oppression in sports.
But I do believe that UWC will have a profound impact on the curling world — one sweep at a time.