Keynote speech for Sport Calgary 2021 Annual General Meeting: Building the Strength of a Community Through Sport

Zoom Virtual Meeting

1:10 P.M. MST

COUNCILLOR CHAHAL: Good afternoon, everybody. I want to thank you for inviting me to participate in the Sport Calgary virtual AGM this year. I am honoured to be your keynote speaker, and I hope everybody in attendance is doing the best they can in these challenging circumstances. These have been difficult times for everybody, and they have not spared the sports and athletic communities. I know everybody in attendance understands the great importance of sports for our collective health and wellness. Still, the COVID-19 pandemic has indeed underscored the depth to which sports build strong communities and the effect their absence has on our lives. 

My name is George Chahal, and I am the City Councillor for Ward 5 in Northeast Calgary. You might be wondering why Sports Calgary chose a City Councillor to give a keynote for their AGM. I’ve earned a bit of a reputation as the “sports guy,” on Council. Sports have always played an enormous role in my life. They motivated me to run for City Council in 2007 and again in 2017. I’ll get into that shortly.

 

Growing up in NE Calgary, sports were central to the community fabric. Not a single day passed by that didn’t involve outdoor or indoor athletic activity for the neighbourhood kids. Whether it was pickup basketball, soccer, baseball, football, ice or street hockey, sports were central to life before, during, and after school. For so many of us growing up in low-income families, they were frankly all we had! The memories, friendships, and lessons learned in those days shaped me into the person I am today and helped so many of us forge a deep sense of pride in our community. We didn’t grow up by ourselves in our houses. We grew up together on fields, and pitches, and rinks. We got in fights, we reconciled, we learned teamwork, and how to be good sports, win or lose. We also learned about the neighbourhoods we called home. Playing sports in public spaces allowed us to explore streets and parks together and build deep and lasting connections to the areas where we were fortunate to grow up. 

I carried my love of sports out of childhood and into my adult life. I remain an avid fan of sports at all levels, especially amateur soccer, cheering for my three daughters. I also volunteer as a coach for their teams. Hopefully, I will be getting back onto the rink soon to continue my storied ball hockey career. I am fortunate to have been a member of many sports communities throughout my life, from an amateur level up to the international competition level. But for now, that’s more than enough about me! 

I want to take a moment to thank the staff and board of Sport Calgary for persevering in their mission to serve as a voice for amateur sports in Calgary. Throughout the pandemic, amateur athletics have faced unbelievable challenges. Many local organizations have not been able to survive. We share in the disappointment of these lost opportunities. It’s not easy to tell your kid that a single practice has been cancelled, let alone an entire season. And for so many families, sports are more than a hobby or a distraction. They are a lifeline, a safe place for children to learn and grow while parents work to provide more opportunities. They are a second chance for at-risk youth to stay out of trouble and be mentored. They are one of the best ways to develop essential socialization skills. Losing these opportunities hurts badly, and the ripple effect is easy to overlook. It only reinforces the importance of Sport Calgary. It also highlights a new opportunity. In many ways, this is a classic underdog story. Amateur sports have taken some heavy punches since 2020, but as they say, “It’s not how many times you get knocked down that count. It’s how many times you get back up.” We will get back up, beat this pandemic, learn our lessons for next time, and bring sports back to life in Calgary. We’re doing this because sports build strong communities, safe communities, and healthy communities. According to a recent survey commissioned by the Canada Games Council, nearly 85% of parents believe that sport will positively impact their child’s mental health and stress levels. As a father of three, I am firmly in that 85%. We have an obligation to these families to ensure their return to sport is safe and equitable. 

Before we can discuss how sports build strong communities, we must have a shared definition of “community”. I’ll go with this: A community is a group of people defined by a shared sense of purpose. For everybody here virtually today, our shared purpose is clearly defined by Sports Calgary’s mission statement: to assist, support, and influence the growth of sports in Calgary. Calgary is a young and growing city, the youngest major city in Canada, and there are clear opportunities for organizations like this to assist, support, and influence the growth of sports at all levels. 

The question I’ve asked myself since before I ran for council, and that I’ll pose to you today is this: How can we make sure that athletic opportunities in Calgary are equitable and accessible to all, regardless of one’s age, background, ethnicity, gender, country of origin, or postal code? This objective must be at the forefront of any strategy as we recover from the pandemic and focus on restoring and growing amateur athletics in the city. The sad reality is that not all kids in Calgary have the same access to sports opportunities right now. There are many reasons for this, and we won’t solve it overnight. Still, we have a chance to right our wrongs and focus on improving equity in access and opportunity. 

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to build a more equitable city. Northeast Calgary is the most culturally diverse area of the City. It has a rich history of being a place where newcomers to Canada can set roots and establish lives here. It also has a reputation for being a forgotten corner of the city. I noticed this growing up in the Northeast neighbourhoods. I noticed it in 2007 when I first put my name forward as a candidate for City Council. In many regards, I notice it today. We can observe this inequity in infrastructure, planning, and services. It’s a systemic pattern. One example of this is the distribution of high-quality turf fields in Calgary. Today, there are 78 Class A or B fields in the City, not one completed East of Deerfoot and North of Peigan Trail. There are thousands of athletes in Northeast Calgary, and for so long, they did not have a high-quality field in their community. It’s why I brought forward a Motion in early 2018 for the City to provide funding, along with the province of Alberta and the Genesis Centre, for a new high-quality turf field in Martindale. It was long overdue, and I was thrilled to announce the ground-breaking of the project earlier this month! I can’t wait to give many of you a tour when it is safe to do so.

I think of the difference this field is going to make in the life of so many Northeast residents. Imagine a single mother living in Taradale. Her son is a talented football player, but working full-time, she does not have the time to drive him across the city to train with a club at a high-quality field. The son eventually loses interest and quits playing soccer. Now imagine the alternative. He has access to a field in the neighbourhood next to his, a quick bike or bus ride away. We all know the difference this would make. Sadly, this has been the story of so many young athletes in Calgary. Limitless potential, passion for sports, all squandered by a lack of amenities.

It’s not just about the high-performance athletes training in world-class facilities either. Imagine the girl who has no choice but to play on a poorly maintained field, where she can’t count on the grass to grow, holes are never filled, and muddy spots make playing sports uncomfortable and even dangerous. And one day, this child gets to visit a Class A field in another neighbourhood. How would that make the kid feel about their community and neighbourhood? It wouldn’t do much to cultivate a sense of pride and ownership. Strong communities are areas that residents are proud to call home. Not every field can be a Class A high-quality field with bleachers and the rest, but a little bit of investment goes a long way. Small projects matter too. They can be as simple as a well-maintained basketball court in the neighbourhood park or allocating space in a large park for a cricket pitch. It can be improving access to Calgary’s incredible bike lane and pathway network. It can be funding for a community association to build a volunteer-managed outdoor rink. These types of projects show folks that we care about them and that their neighbourhoods matter. 

These types of well-maintained spaces serve more than just a practical athletic function. They also serve as community hubs. Before the pandemic, the Genesis Centre was always one of the busiest locations in Northeast Calgary. It is fundamentally a rec centre, with gymnasiums, pool space, and many other amenities. But ask anybody about the Genesis Centre, and they will tell you that it’s so much more than a gym. It’s a community hub. It’s a place where people from all walks of life come together with a shared purpose – enrichment. When we give people a reason to come together, they build strong and healthy communities. The Genesis Centre also has a public library. I believe it is the most visited Public Library branch aside from the new Central Library. This is not a coincidence. 

Community hubs make our city safer. I was recently the Chair of the Public Safety Task Force, which I brought forward to address a growing trend of urban violence. I heard countless stories about the challenges families face in raising children when single parents, or both, are working long hours to provide. I know how easy it is to fall in with the wrong crowd after school when there is nothing to do. Many of my close friends fell into gang life. Some went to prison or lost their lives. Urban violence has the most significant impact on black and racialized communities. We cannot only invest in spaces. We must also invest in programs and initiatives. There are so many opportunities for mentorship and role modelling in sports, from coaches, older teammates, and peers. Structure and discipline don’t need to be taught through punishment. Sports teach them implicitly and explicitly as character-building elements. Without them, you cannot be successful. 

Finally, we need to be conscious of the communities we are serving when we make these investments. What works in the Southwest might not be as effective in the Northeast. A baseball diamond might not be utilized in a particular neighbourhood, whereas a soccer net might. As our city grows, so does our diversity. As governments, we must remain mindful of this and adapt our strategies to work for different people with different needs. We cannot expect a one-size-fits-all approach to be universally successful. Organizations like Sports Calgary should also remain mindful of the rich cultural and sporting diversity in our city. Strong sporting communities become stronger and more resilient when all interested members can thrive. 

I want to give you a brief update on how the City of Calgary is supporting strong communities through sports. (George provided a brief update on the Foothills Athletic Park project and his Encouraging Street Play motion at Council.)

This last year has brought a lot of disappointment for amateur sports in Calgary. It has felt at times unfair, confusing, and unjustified. As we enter the summer months and vaccines are becoming more available by the day, I urge everybody to hold onto hope. I want to thank Catriona Le May Doan for joining me on April 7th for a virtual event on Facebook Live. The event was called “The Northeast Calgary Vaccine Townhall.” The goal was to encourage folks living and working in Northeast Calgary to get vaccinated. Catriona was part of a panel discussing the impact COVID-19 has had on the sports and wellness community. Jasmine Mian, retired Olympic wrestler, Jon Cornish, former Calgary Stampeder football player, and Jean Claude Munyezamu, the director of a local soccer club called Soccer without Boundaries, were also panellists. The event also included three medical experts, various community and cultural leaders, and frontline workers for an engaging and informative conversation. Not only did we discuss vaccines specifically, but we also learned how this pandemic had affected diverse communities in different ways. One of my takeaways from the sports panel was resilience. It was a common theme of all the conversations but especially vivid in discussing sports and wellness. This pandemic has been tough, but we are tougher. Our fight against COVID isn’t over yet, and perhaps the hardest parts are yet to come. We’ve all been doing our part, but let’s not give up as we enter the homestretch. It’s the third period of a tie game, Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Encourage everybody you know to get vaccinated as soon as possible, follow provincial health guidelines, and let’s pull ahead for good. 

As I close, I want to remind everybody that Calgary’s future as a sports city is in great hands. Every one of you is a committed, community-driven advocate. Building stronger communities through sports is a team sport in itself. Nobody here can do it alone. We need cooperation and collaboration from all levels of government. I am grateful that the federal government has announced a major funding investment towards inclusive sports in their latest budget. We need to work with schools and school boards, communities and community associations. Above all, we need to work with and for those who have not had the same opportunities that we were blessed to grow up with. With this in mind, we will rebuild a strong and thriving city through sports. 

Once again, it was an honour to speak to you today, and I look forward to the day we can reconnect safely in person. Thank you. 

END

1:30 PM MST

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