A Smithers Seconday School elite-level athlete has been disqualified from competing this school year due to a BC School Sports rule that does not work for northern B.C.
In her Grade 10 year, Fiona Sullivan, 16, started taking classes in Smithers she needed for entry to post-secondary education that were not available in her hometown of Hazelton.
While at Smithers Secondary, she discovered the Canadian Sport School, program run by Engage Sport North in partnership with School District 54 that allows student athletes to blend academic studies with high performance training. As an elite wrestler, who qualified for Nationals in 2020 before COVID-19 shut down competition, the sport school was perfect for Fiona.
Tim Sullivan, Fiona’s father, said it was a “beacon of hope” for her. She applied and was accepted into the program and even though her family was unable to make the move to Smithers, Fiona did, staying with a billet family.
“School sports are more than just competing for her, sports keeps her focused on her health and mental well-being, they are what drive her, they are how she makes friends and they are how she manages the immense stress of living away from her family,” Tim said.
Unfortunately, though, a BC School Sports bylaw does not allow a student to transfer to another school after Grade 9 and compete in school sports in that year for a full 12 months.
“We understand the need for this bylaw in urban centres to keep the sports system fair, however it does not take into consideration the inequity of sport opportunities in the North,” says Matthew Monkman, Assistant Superintendent of Schools for SD54. “There is no competitive edge to gain in Fiona’s transfer. The programs she needs access to aren’t available in her home community.”
In fact, the reason Engage Sport North (ESN) partnered with the Canadian sport School in the first place was to “reduce barriers and provide access and opportunities for northern athletes to excel in sport and academics,” explained Mandi Graham, ESN executive director.
“It is difficult for everyone involved when an athlete is punished by a sport system that has not evolved to reflect the current education system, which attempts to provide equity of access to all students in all areas of our province.
Fiona’s family has filed several appeals with BC School Sport with the support of ESN as the operator of the sport school, the school district, Hazelton Secondary, Smithers Secondary and Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Taylor Bachrach, which have been denied.
“It is particularly unsettling that there is no school or body opposing this request – only the blind application of a BCSS bylaw where the full context is not being taken into consideration” Graham said, adding ESN will continue .
“Her story represents the plight of so many high-performing athletes in BC and across Canada who could be the next Olympian in our sport pathway, but more importantly, it highlights the critical need to facilitate inclusive sport involvement to build relationships, foster healthy mental and physical states and build communities. ”
While wrestling is Fiona’s primary sport, she also excels at others, such as volleyball, but is also barred from those. She was able to and did play in exhibition matches, but could not play in sanctioned events, such as the zone championships in which the SSS senior girls took the title.
Senior volleyball head coach Kristina Stefanek said Fiona’s ineligibility also affected the team.
“In other schools or in situations where more students wanted to play volleyball, Fiona would not have made the team as most coaches would only want to keep those who can play the whole season,” Stefanek said. “Finding consistency in team dynamics was also a little more challenging this year, as we wanted to let Fiona play, but we also had to prepare our line-ups for zones (let players who will play together eventually get used to playing with each other).”