Former Canadian Olympian and long-time human rights advocate Bruce Kidd is calling on Canada’s federal government to suspend future travel visas to Russian athletes in the wake of the country’s invasion of Ukraine.
Kidd, who competed for Canada as a middle-distance runner in the 1964 Olympics and is now a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto and the school’s ombudsperson, has been an advocate for athletes’ rights and an agitator to end racism and gender discrimination in sports.
He was an outspoken critic of South Africa’s apartheid policies and pushed for the country to be banned from international sports until it changed its discriminatory policies.
“Sport means a lot to [Vladimir] Putin and to Russia for their international legitimacy,” Kidd said. “They use sports to show how powerful and successful they are in the world. By denying visas to athletes like junior hockey players and professionals who want to hone their skills in Canada, we’re saying, ‘The actions of your state are so offensive and beyond the realm of civilized conduct.’” Kidd suggested Canada should also reject future visas to Russians in other occupations, including academia, research, music and entertainment.
Denying visas to Russian athletes would call into question the country’s ability to compete in international hockey events in coming months. After the International Ice Hockey Federation cancelled the World Juniors in December midway through the tournament in Edmonton and Red Deer, sources say the IIHF and Hockey Canada have discussed staging the tournament this August in the same Canadian venues.
Prohibiting visas and work permits for Russian athletes might also impact Russian professionals hoping to compete in Canada.
“People’s first response may be to say, ‘Why do you do that? It’s a free society, they should be able to come here,’” Kidd said. “No. We would be saying that we are showing the world that we oppose in the strongest terms Russia’s actions. Russia has begun to carry out warfare against a duly constituted independent democratic nation. While there have been sanctions against Russia, the response should not just be in the financial realm. It should be in all aspects of civil society, including sports.”
Kidd didn’t say for how long he thought Canada should suspend granting work permits and travel visas for Russian athletes. He also said that he’s not calling for Russian athletes currently working in Canada to be expelled.
“I don’t think it makes sense to kick out athletes who already are here,” Kidd said.
Aidan Strickland, press secretary for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, the federal government department that approves travel visas and work permits, declined to say if the Canadian government would consider Kidd’s proposal.
“Canada is steadfast in its support of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” Strickland wrote in an email to TSN. “We support the decisions of sports organizations to disassociate themselves from Russia and from this invasion, which will have serious consequences for Russia. As the situation develops, we will continue to look at additional measures.”
In 1974, because the South African government embraced a segregation system known as apartheid that discriminated against the country’s Black majority population, preventing them from accessing fundamental human rights including proper education, health care, and employment, the Canadian government banned South Africa’s Olympic athletes from competing and training in Canada and stopped Canadians from competing and training in South Africa.
“The first thing Canada did was deny them visas,” Kidd said. “Also, the threat was made to Canadian national sports organizations that they would lose funding if they sent athletes to South Africa.”
Kidd said Canada’s policies subsequently hardened in the 1980s. South Africa’s professional golfers and tennis players were banned from competing and training in Canada in 1988.
Canada also put restrictions on Canadian pro athletes competing against South Africans in third-party countries.
“If a Canadian athlete was in an event in Europe, say, and they had to compete against a South African, they were required to withdraw from the competition and report the contact to Sport Canada,” Kidd said. “If they didn’t, their national sport organization would face discipline and lose funding.”
Kidd said banning South Africa became an effective tool.
“It signalled to South Africa’s white population the hostility of countries like Canada to the policies that they had about apartheid,” Kidd said. “It also signalled to the majority Black population that they had friends out there, that they were not alone, and that gradually the noose was being tightened on South Africa’s government.”
After decades of being banned from international sport, South Africa finally hosted the Rugby World Cup in 1995.