Montreal, Canada – As the top female football players from around the world prepare to compete in the Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand in three months, the sixth-ranked Canadian team has high hopes.
The squad is coming off a gold-medal victory in 2021 at the Tokyo Olympics and is now pushing for World Cup glory under the leadership of captain Christine Sinclair, international football’s all-time leading scorer for both men and women.
Yet Sinclair and her teammates’ on-field successes have taken a backseat to another fight being waged off the pitch as they demand pay equity and greater support from Canada Soccer, the body that governs football in the country.
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“Now is a turning point,” Carrie Serwetnyk, a former Canadian national team player and the first woman inducted into the Canada Soccer Hall of Fame, told Al Jazeera about the team’s very public battle.
The issues that players on the Canadian women’s team have raised in recent weeks – from a lack of funding for training, staffing and other resources ahead of the World Cup to disparities in pay and opportunity compared with the men’s national team – are not new, Serwetnyk said.
But what is, Serwetnyk said, is the players’ willingness to publicly demand a solution to problems that have been going on for decades. “Having just won the Olympics and qualified for the World Cup and then their funding was cut? That was it for them,” she said.
“Finally, they put the brakes on and said, ‘No, we’re not doing this any more.'”
‘Outraged and deeply concerned’
The Canadian women’s national team, which has been without a collective agreement since 2021, took their longstanding frustrations with Canada Soccer public on February 10.
In a statement put out by their union, the Canadian Soccer Players Association, the athletes said they were “outraged and deeply concerned” by news of significant funding cuts and warned that their World Cup preparations were being compromised.
With the tournament set to begin in July, the team said it had been forced to cut training camp windows and the number of players and staff invited while facing “immense uncertainty about compensation”.
The players said they did not benefit from the same level of support as the men’s national team, which last year qualified for its first World Cup in 36 years, and were told “to simply make do with less”.
“We are tired – tired of constantly having to fight for fair and equal treatment, and for a program that will give us a chance to achieve what we know this team is capable of achieving for Canada,” they wrote in announcing a planned strike.
The time is now, we are taking job action. pic.twitter.com/QbVbhTcdDU
— CanadianSoccerPlayers (@PlayersCanadian) February 10, 2023
Canada Soccer responded swiftly, saying on February 11 that the team’s strike action was not legal under labour laws in the province of Ontario.
The governing body said it held a meeting with the players union and “took the necessary steps” to ensure they played in the SheBelieves Cup later that month in the United States. “Canada Soccer is heartened that the Women’s National Team Players will play as it committed,” it said.
But the players said they were being forced back onto the pitch under threat of legal action and millions of dollars in damages that could be incurred by their union and the players at camp. “The She Believes is being played in protest,” Sinclair wrote on Twitter.
That protest was expressed during the tournament with the Canadian players donning purple wristbands to renew their call for equality.
They also wore purple warm-up shirts with the words “Enough is enough” ahead of a February 16 match against the US women’s national team, which fought its own years-long battle against gender discrimination – and won equal pay provisions in 2022.
“Although we are now on the other side of this fight and can focus on our play on the field, our counterparts in Canada and elsewhere are experiencing the same pervasive misogyny and unequal treatment that we faced,” the US team said in a statement before kickoff.
The Canadian men’s national team also put its weight behind the women, demanding that Canada Soccer explain how it allocates funding because the process was “cloaked in secrecy”. “This is a once-in-a-generation, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to grow the sport in Canada, and the current leadership of Soccer Canada is putting that opportunity at risk,” the men said.
— FIFPRO (@FIFPRO) February 17, 2023
Demands for action
Helen Stoumbos, a member of the Canadian national team in the 1990s and co-founder of the Canada Women’s Soccer Alumni Association, said the federation needs systemic change and that can only happen by first ensuring “accountability and transparency” at Canada Soccer.
Stoumbos said she and her teammates also dealt with problems like the ones raised today but a fear of retribution kept many from speaking out.
“I [knew that] if I spoke up back in the day, I’d be gone. We just keep our mouths shut because [we] just want to play,” she told Al Jazeera, adding that the experience takes a toll on players.
“It really detracts from your preparation,” said Stoumbos, who was the first Canadian football player – male or female – to score a World Cup goal. “You just want to focus on playing. The last thing you want to do is have to worry about anything else.”
She said that while it was disappointing to see members of the team still fighting for equal opportunity 25 years later, the recent wave of public pressure on Canada Soccer has forced the governing body to act.
“They’ve been trying to get a contract for I don’t know how many years now,” she said. “And it took this kind of media attention and [public] attention for them actually to start moving forward on something.”
In late February, Canada Soccer President Nick Bontis resigned after the leaders of Canadian football federations said they had lost confidence in his leadership. “I acknowledge that this moment requires change,” Bontis said in a statement.
— CAN Soccer’s WNT (@CANWNT) April 11, 2023
Days later, the governing body said an interim deal on funding for 2022 had been reached with the women’s team, and on March 9, it also revealed some details of a new collective bargaining agreement being negotiated with both the men’s and women’s national teams.
The agreement would include equal pay, equal funding awarded for World Cup qualification and the sharing of prize money, it said. “It is time to get a deal done,” Earl Cochrane, Canada Soccer’s general secretary, said in a statement.
“We’ve been negotiating in good faith and want to get to a resolution with our National Teams,” the statement said. “In order to get there, we need both of our National Teams to agree. Our women deserve to be paid equally and they deserve the financial certainty going into the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup.”
‘It helps girls dream’
But questions about alleged mismanagement and a lack of financial transparency at Canada Soccer remain unanswered – and the female players last month took their grievances to a Canadian parliamentary committee that is investigating the goings-on at the federation.
Stoumbos said the success of both the women’s and men’s teams, combined with the fact that Canada will be co-hosting the 2026 men’s World Cup, makes this an opportune time to make meaningful change – although outside pressure will be critical.
“And hopefully, they keep pushing the envelope and making sure that something actually does transpire after all is said and done,” she said.
In the meantime, Serwetnyk – who also co-founded Equal Play, a non-profit advocating for girls in football – said the team’s campaign is sending an important message, especially to young women and girls striving to achieve their goals.
“Not every girl wants to play soccer, but she may have a dream to follow some other path, and when you see other women succeeding, … it helps girls dream bigger for themselves,” she told Al Jazeera.
“What’s great about what the women’s national team has done by going on strike is they’re showing, ‘No, we’re going to fight for this.’ They are fighting for the future generations and it’s really important that they win. They have to win this battle.”