Sports and rec are key to social development and integration. But a new study shows the kids who need them most are being left out.
Taseen Ali was in Grade 9 when he moved from Bangladesh to Toronto in 2010. He couldn’t speak any English and had trouble making friends in school. He tried joining after school recreational programs across the city to meet other kids, but the ones he found were either too far from his home in the Danforth, or cost too much for registration.
This week, hundreds of Toronto families are racing to sign their kids up for soccer, swimming, baseball, and other City-run recreation programs before summer registration closes. Most of those spots will go to Canadian-born youth, while newcomers like Ali, who arguably need the programs most, will continue to miss out.
According to a new report from Social Planning Toronto (SPT), newcomer youth participate in sports and rec programs half as much as their Canadian-born peers—and the fallout from the low attendance may be detrimental to their integration into their new communities.
“Recreation is a really valuable tool for creating the kinds of social networks and social inclusions that are important to successful communities,” says Sean Meagher, executive director of SPT. “They bring communities together across all kinds of different barriers, including language, culture, and age.”
With this in mind, SPT formed a steering committee and conducted seven focus groups with newcomer youth and five consultations with newcomer parents to learn about their experience with recreation programs.
During the focus group meetings, interviewers heard many of the same complaints: rec programs were too expensive, whether for registration or ongoing costs for essentials such as equipment; they were too far from home and inconvenient to get to by transit; and information about programs was inaccessible or difficult to navigate.
Martin Kengo, East Toronto Local Immigration Partnership officer, isn’t surprised by the results.
“Many newcomers face the pressures from a financial standpoint, where parents don’t have the necessary means to enroll their children in sports and other programs,” says Kengo, who represents southwest Scarborough, where 45 per cent of residents are immigrants.
Kengo’s office is housed at Warden Woods Community Centre, a non-government organization that offers free rec programs to local residents. While many of the participants are newcomers, he says there’s often long waitlists for programs, and those who don’t get in are reluctant to cross the city for recreation. Kengo sees this lack of recreational activity manifest as poor physical health, but also depression and isolation across his community. “They’re going to be lacking some of those social skills that they would gain through the interaction with their peers,” he says.
The findings from the recent SPT report are not an anomaly. In 2012, the Parks, Forest, and Recreation Committee developed the Recreation Service Plan, a five-year strategy to improve access and delivery of City-operated rec programs. The plan identified newcomer youth as a priority group, and outlined ways to increase their participation. Among their recommendations were:
- Improve outreach to underserved neighbourhoods
- Enhance the Welcome Policy (a recreation subsidy program), to make it easier for newcomers to know about and apply for the program
- Strengthen partnerships with organizations that work with underserved youth
- Make recreational programs equally accessible to everyone, regardless of income and geography
“Unfortunately,” the SPT report points out, “the plan has only received partial implementation.”
Meagher notes that the City made some strides over the last few years to ease the financial burden of recreation. Since 2014, the City added 16 more “community centres where programs are free” (previously called priority centres) in low-income neighbourhoods, primarily Scarborough, Etobicoke, and North York. Before then, most of the 23 centres offering free programs were in the downtown core and served less than half of Toronto’s low-income residents. However, 95 City-run community centres continue to charge for programs, which SPT says is a problem given Toronto’s high immigration and child poverty rates. “Continuing to expand free programs would further enhance access, especially for newcomer youth,” the report reads.
Now more than halfway through the Recreation Service Plan cycle, Meagher hoped to see bigger improvements, particularly with engagement and outreach to new Canadians. “The City had a signature success with the Syrian refugee process where they did very active outreach to very new arrivals in a way that demonstrated some real commitment,” says Meagher. “But we need that systematically across Toronto, and that hasn’t rolled out as robustly as it needs to.”
For Meagher, the most troubling finding from their research was that, overwhelmingly, young newcomers were interested in being active and social, but felt like they didn’t have the opportunity to do so. While youth participants reported spending most of their time on screens—on Facebook, playing video games, communicating with friends by text—they said they’d rather spend their time doing active things like archery, gymnastics, rock climbing, playing music, painting, fishing, and taking cooking classes. “It’s not just that people want something and they’re not getting it,” says Meagher, “they want something that’s really good for them and really good for their community and we’re creating systems that stand in their way. That’s one of those bright red signals that says, ‘You gotta stop what you’re doing and do something differently.’”
SPT presented their report to the Community Development and Recreation Committee on Monday. The committee moved to refer the report to staff, and requested that staff meet with SPT to discuss how to address some of the issues highlighted in the report.
Some new Torontonians will find their footing—like Ali. Toward the end of his first year in Toronto, Ali finally joined a community group in his neighbourhood that he learned about from a friend. He credits the Bangladeshi-Canadian Community Services (BCS) for helping him learn English, meet more friends, and pursue his passion for photography. Now, seven years later, Ali works as a youth leader for BCS to help other newcomers thrive in the city.
But this won’t be the reality for others—and the loss of community engagement and social participation as a result is one the City must tackle head on.