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Bringing social justice to the pitch
Now a veteran on Canada’s Rugby Sevens senior national team, Charity Williams has emerged as a leader both on and off the rugby pitch. Using her voice to discuss racial justice, Williams has spent the last year working to make the sport of rugby in Canada more inclusive and has raised awareness for Black Lives Matter in her community.
Williams started playing rugby at 14 during her first year of high school. Two years later, in 2012, she moved from her hometown of Toronto, Ontario to Victoria, British Columbia to train with the Rugby Sevens national team program. Williams described the isolation she felt while living on her own for the first time as a young Black woman in a predominantly white community.
“Being new, young and a person of colour was a lot,” Williams said. “Everyone on the team was a decade older than me, so it was a tough adjustment. I was kind of put in a situation where I had to be really good really quickly, and it wasn’t something I was prepared for.”
From her move to Victoria, to being the only Black woman on the Olympic rugby team in 2016, to today, living and training in Victoria as a person of colour never got easier. Williams noted, however, that her teammates have helped work towards creating a safer space for herself and other BIPOC players.“
One thing that helped was that more BIPOC teammates joined the team and I found a place with them,” said Williams. “This past year, the team has taken a stance of really wanting to learn about racial justice and equality, and learning more about BIPOC people and their experiences.”
Today, four BIPOC women are on the Rugby Sevens team at the Tokyo Olympics. At a virtual press conference on Jul. 24, the team made statements on racial equality and the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at residential schools across Canada. All 13 players wore shirts with the words “BIPOC Lives Matter” written above a Rugby Canada logo.
Williams, alongside teammate Pam Buisa, has worked closely with Rugby Canada to create a BIPOC Working Group. The group looks to assist in the development of policies, education, and training to create a zero-tolerance space within the Canadian rugby community. Outreach objectives for indigenous, marginalized and low-income communities are also included in their strategic plan. Williams believes there is still more that needs to be done.
“The BIPOC Working Group came out of really wanting to create an environment where we can feel safe and where we can feel like we have some agency in what happens in Rugby Canada,” Williams said. “I’m proud of where it’s at but it definitely needs a lot of work. I think the most important thing for me is that they value what we bring to it, because it’s a lot of invisible labour.”
Looking forward, Williams hopes that Rugby Canada continues the work that she, Buisa, and other BIPOC players have put into the project. “When I leave the team eventually, I hope that this group stays as a place where BIPOC people can feel comfortable and that it can actually create some real change within the team and not just fall apart when certain voices exit,” she said.
Through her extensive work as an activist and as an athlete, Williams hopes that she can create lasting change in the sport and show younger generations of BIPOC athletes that they are welcome in Canadian rugby.
“I want to make a space that’s safe for me because I’m here right now and I think that’s important, but also for the young kids that are coming into this space,” Williams explained. “I want them to know that there’s a place for them here, that this place is made for them. That when you get here you’re going to be safe and the things that you need to be successful are going to be taken into consideration.”
Follow Williams and the rest of the Women’s Rugby Sevens team as they take to the field for their first game of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics on Thursday, July 29.
Photos by: Kevin Light
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