I went skating at the local lake this week. I live in Ottawa, where skating is a big deal. In addition to the Rideau Canal, we have many community rinks. COVID has changed the rules around skating though, and it is particularly hitting those who are least likely to have other options.
Just a few minutes from my house is the poorest community in Ottawa. There are many immigrants, and one of the largest Inuit communities outside Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut. A check of the City’s listing of skating rinks shows only two for the entire area, compared to the four in my neighborhood. These community rinks are supported by the City, but the communities need to request them, and maintain them. I suspect that there are fewer rinks because fewer residents have skating traditions, money for skates, and the time or energy to spend hours scraping and watering the ice. Meanwhile, my favourite rink, at my kids’ old public school, has a permanent change facility (not a seasonal trailer), boards, and a chilled pad so the ice is available in the shoulder seasons at the beginning and end of winter.
Even larger facilities are not shared equitably. Last April, one of the City arenas was converted into a temporary shelter for the homeless, because the usual facilities had been forced to reduce the numbers of people they could accommodate. In July, a local parent lobbied to have the shelter so it could be kids could play hockey. He did back down after public outrage. In contrast, the only indoor arena in the poor neighborhood has also been closed for months to serve as a respite center for the homeless and those with precarious housing. No-one has raised a peep.
The City has asked that people who don’t live within walking distance of the Rideau Canal stay away this year. Unsurprisingly, the communities that border this gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage site are wealthy. The lake I skated at this week is bordered by private homes on one side, and no trespassing signs on the other. Parking is extremely limited, assuming you have a car. Although it is in walking distance of that poor community, I have only ever seen white, middle class or wealthier people skating there.
Skating in Ottawa is an example of systemic bias in access to facilities. It’s not necessarily deliberate ill-will. That shelter is much needed, and it serves some of the many vulnerable who live right in that community. The City and the National Capital Commission have reminded residents that there are places to hike or ski in many suburban areas; but that’s not the same as the Canal, and those skiing and hiking spots aren’t available in densely-populate poor communities. Everyone is welcome to set up a community rink, if they have the time and energy to organize a group to make the application, and then maintain it. And the lake is open to anyone who cares to go, if you know someone who lives nearby and happens to mention that it exists at all.
So what to do about it? I have no idea. That is the challenge of trying to make systemic change. Things like subsidized sports and school programs can help by at least introducing kids to sports and fitness activities, but without a community that makes fitness a priority for all its citizens, it will be hard for them to stay fit for life.
Diane Harper is a public servant in Ottawa. She is lucky enough to live in a really nice, walkable neighbourhood.