Congratulations to the 2818 athletes who participated in the recent Surrey 2012 BC Summer Games! Thanks especially to the athletes’ parents, coaches, and the 3500 volunteers who helped to organize and host the Games. The Senate Human Rights committee’s recent study, Level the Playing Field, reminded me of how important it is for our young people to have opportunities to participate in sport.

Recommendation #5 from our report calls on “the Government of Canada to work with provincial and territorial governments and all relevant stakeholders to ensure the creation of more opportunities for Canadians with disabilities to participate in physical activities and sport programs.”

This week I’ve been reflecting on this recommendation in the context of my home province’s BC Disability Games.

There have been ten BC Disability Games since 1999, but none since 2009. The most recent BC Disability games, co-hosted by Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows in 2009, included 120 participants in 5- and 10-pin bowling, lawn bowls, golf, and equestrian events.

According to the BC Games Society, the scheduled host of the 2011 BC Disability Games was not willing to invest volunteer time and community capital unless disability sport organizations (DSOs) could attract more participants. Unfortunately, the 2011 BC Disability Games was ultimately cancelled and the BC Disability Games Society dissolved in March 31, 2012.

Despite these setbacks, the BC sport sector is working to develop opportunities for athletes with disabilities to compete in sports. “Proposals have been brought forward for an inter-provincial event, winter and summer, held in static locations,” wrote Kelly Mann, President and CEO of the BC Games Society in an email to my office. “In the interim, the BC Games Society continues to work with DSOs regarding further inclusion in the BC Summer and BC Winter Games.”

This summer, the Surrey 2012 BC Summer Games included sixty-six athletes with disabilities in four disciplines. It’s so encouraging to hear about organizations, like the BC Games Society, that actively include athletes with disabilities in their events.

3.7% of Canadians fourteen years and younger live with a disability, while 4.7% of Canadian between fifteen and twenty-four years old live with a disability. By contrast, despite the best efforts of the BC Games Society to include a diversity of athletes, young Canadian athletes with disabilities made up just 2.3% of the participants at the BC Summer Games.

The situation and particular needs of each community vary across Canada. That’s why our committee insisted that the Government of Canada ensure “an open, transparent, and substantive engagement” with Canadian sport organizations and others that advocate for persons with disabilities (Recommendation #2), and why we believe that by renewing the Canadian Sport Policy, the Government must provide opportunities for consultation with all relevant stakeholders (Recommendation #10). Perhaps most vitally, the Policy must ensure that local organizations and programs serving persons with disabilities from across Canada receive equitably distributed funding and support (Recommendations #10 and #12).

Whether Canadian athletes with disabilities are best served by a model in which they join other athletes in participating at provincial-level games, or by an intra- or inter-provincial framework for a Disability Games, they deserve whatever funding, support, and leadership from our government necessary to ensure that they receive equal opportunities to participate in sport.

Programs like Own the Podium are predicated on the belief that the benefits of ‘podium performances at the Olympic and Paralympic Games’ transcend the value of a medal. Through opportunities to participate and compete in sport, Canadians live healthier and happier lives. We must continue to strive for a more inclusive framework for participation in sport that engages all Canadians, in all their diversity—it is the only truly Canadian ‘road to excellence.’