Nova Scotia

World Champion paddler wants to promote sport diversity in new Halifax YWCA role

Karen Furneaux has been involved in a lot of initiatives to try and get more women and young girls involved in sports in Canada. Now she’s hoping a new job as the Sport and Inclusion Coordinator at the Halifax YWCA will trigger more opportunities for women.

Karen Furneaux to take on challenges facing women in sports

Former world champion paddler Karen Furneaux is the new sport and inclusion co-ordinator for the YWCA's LEAD program. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

Former world champion paddler Karen Furneaux has been involved in a lot of initiatives to try and get more women and young girls involved in sports in Canada.

Now she's hoping a new job she began two weeks ago in Halifax will trigger more opportunities for women.

"With the COVID-19 pandemic, it has affected girls in sport and they are way less likely to return to sport," said Furneaux, the newly minted sport and inclusion co-ordinator for the YWCA Halifax LEAD program. "It's almost a generational crisis that girls aren't coming back into sport at the critical age of ten to 18."

LEAD stands for leadership, equity, activity and diversity.

Furneaux, 45, grew up on the outskirts of Halifax in the community of Waverley and for years competed at the world's highest stage as a competitive paddler. She won two world championships in kayaking and represented Canada in three Summer Olympic Games.

"Part of my new role and what I'm most excited about is to educate and train the leadership in our clubs and facilities to help girls feel more comfortable," said Furneaux. "That's girls in any sport, of any ability and any background."

Furneaux has always been an advocate for women trying to compete at the highest level possible. She knows not everyone is going to turn out to be a world champion like her, but she feels every girl should have the opportunity to be on the same level playing field when they get started.

"Nova Scotia and Canada are becoming more diverse by the day and that's only going to increase," said Furneaux, who honed her paddling skills as a teenager at the Cheema Aquatic Club in her home community. "We need to remove all barriers to those girls who might not be accessing programs and I'm excited to dig into those questions."

Furneaux was a two-time world champion and represented Canada at three Summer Olympic Games. (Greg Redmond)

At first glance, Furneaux's background as an athlete and public speaker should set her up for success in her new position.

"It was definitely a bonus to get her application, she applied on her own, we didn't seek her out," said Marcus Baksh, the community programs manager of the Halifax YWCA. "She definitely showed us a passion that she wanted to do this kind of work."

Despite advances in the last decade to ensure fair access and opportunities for women and girls from diverse backgrounds in sport and recreation, they continue to be underrepresented as participants, coaches and officials.

The Nova Scotia government has approved more funding to address those kinds of issues. Some of those funds have been secured by the YWCA.

"It really feels like the province is making a push to help organizations like ours reach our goals," said Baksh, a native of Trinidad and Tobago who moved to Nova Scotia to go to university 20 years ago.

Furneaux is well connected in both the provincial and national sport scene. She's already planning to reach out to some of her contacts as she establishes herself in her new role.

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