Canada's Sports Hall of Fame celebrates 3 strong women

With gender equality in sport becoming more of a priority in this country, it's fitting that Canada's Sports Hall of Fame is adding three extraordinary, barrier-breaking women as part of its class of 2018, writes Scott Russell.

New inductees reflect hope that gender equality is becoming a bigger priority in sport

Chandra Crawford won Olympic gold as a cross-country skier in 2006 and is now an advocate for women in sport. (Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images/File)

In Canada, it is a pivotal time for women in sport.

Never has gender equity in this nation's arenas, swimming pools and playgrounds been a greater priority for both governments and the private sector.

The most recent federal budget allocated $30 million over the next three years toward the goal of keeping young women engaged in sport and physical activity.

Just this week, the new Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities, Kirsty Duncan, assembled a 12-person working group charged with the responsibility of delivering concrete recommendations that will lead to equal sporting opportunity for Canadian men and women by 2035.

The distinguished group includes people like hockey superstar and International Olympic Committee member Hayley Wickenheiser, Olympic champion Adam van Koeverden, Chair of the International Paralympic Committee's Athlete's Council Chelsey Gotell, and John Herdman, who led the Canadian women's soccer team to the Olympic podium in both London and Rio.

Adding to the momentum is the inclusion of three prominent women to Canada's Sports Hall of Fame as part of the class of 2018. 

The most high-profile of them is Chandra Crawford, an Olympic champion in cross-country skiing and the founder of Fast and Female, an organization that has empowered women through sport since 2005.

Also selected is perhaps the greatest female baseball player in Canadian history — the late Mary "Bonnie" Baker of Regina, who starred as a catcher with the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in the 1940s and '50s. Baker later went on to coach baseball in Saskatchewan and was the country's first female sports broadcaster at CKRM in Regina in 1964-65. Her story helped inspire Geena Davis's character in the movie A League of Their Own.

Rounding out the contingent of women in the class of 2018 is Olympic rower and academic Sandra Kirby of the University of Winnipeg.  Honoured in the "Builder" category, the sociologist has written extensively on human rights, abuse and homophobia in sport and has more recently focused on the establishment of the World Safe Sport Agency.

Breaking barriers

The message is clear — Canada's Sports Hall of Fame is recognizing women who have not only been great performers but who have also broken down barriers. They've demonstrated that women, just like men, can aspire to be powerful and admired sporting heroes.

"On one hand I'm inspired, on the other hand I'm discouraged," Crawford said while attending to her two-month-old son Bruce and preparing for media interviews the day before the announcement.

Mary "Bonnie" Baker was a baseball star who helped inspire Geena Davis's character in the movie A League of Their Own. (Submitted by Baker family)
"It's a bit disheartening because in this day and age we are still talking about homophobia and a lack of gender equity in sport in this country. The answers are there. We no longer have to narrowly define what sport is and who it's meant to be for."

Crawford points to declining rates of female participation in sport as well as young women who drop out of sport as adolescents. In particular, she laments the lack of women who assume leadership roles in Canadian sport. According to her, there are far too few women who coach, manage, govern and generally make the rules.

"The benefits to society, in general, are tremendous when we concentrate on developing female leadership," Crawford stressed. "In fact, the gains for females in sport are enormous. They become more resilient and know that confidence can be cultivated. They also have a greater chance of success in later life if they continue to benefit from the lessons that sport teaches."

'This is Canada'

The class of 2018 and the eight new members of Canada's Sports Hall of Fame represent the kaleidoscope that the country has become. 

There is an indigenous sport leader, a pioneering para athlete, a Stanley Cup champion, a French-Canadian diver and an African-American football player who made his name north of the border.

But the fact remains, the minority of those named this year to Canada's Sports Hall of Fame are women.

In spite of this, the infectiously optimistic Crawford believes the fortunes of women in the sporting arena are on the rise in Canada.

"There are more and more initiatives to keep young women in sport and the government is showing some leadership in this regard," she noted.

"This is Canada. This is our class. It makes me proud to be from a country that honours inclusion, diversity and is welcoming to all people."

Perhaps the most important signal as these three women enter Canada's Sports Hall of Fame is that women in this country will increasingly not only make a difference on the scoreboard, but also inspire more women to stay on the field of play longer.