A 16-year-old girl from northern B.C. has been denied access to playing high school sports, simply because she transferred schools to better her educational and athletic opportunities.
Fiona Sullivan is from the rural village of Hazelton, which has a population of about 300 people and is about an hour’s drive to Smithers.
In her Grade 10 year, she started taking classes online through Smithers Secondary School as she needed the courses to apply to post-secondary but they were unavailable in her home community.
That’s when she discovered Smithers Sports School, a program run by Engage Sport North in partnership with School District 54 that allows student-athletes to blend academic studies with high-performance training.
Sullivan is an elite-level wrestler, who qualified for nationals in February 2020 before the pandemic shut down all sports competition and as an all-around athlete, she is also very involved in other sports like volleyball, soccer and snowboarding.
Sullivan was accepted into this program but had to move in with a billet family in Smithers as her parents were willing but economically unable to relocate from Hazelton.
“That was a big deal and we had to find a place to stay and figure everything out over the course of like a couple of months,” said Sullivan, who explained how much this opportunity meant to her.
“There are tons of different athletes in this program and we all train together and it helps to keep us focused and it’s just a lot better motivation, I find, to be in a group of kids your own age who are supporting you.”
A flaw in the system
However, due to the timing of her move, a bylaw with BC School Sports has now disqualified her from competing in high school sports in the 2021-2022 school year.
Not only in her sport of wrestling but also in soccer and volleyball.
BC School Sports is responsible for governing high school sports in the province and has a bylaw that 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.
“This rule is in place to keep the sport system fair in the transferring of students from one school to another, but it doesn't really pertain to the system that we have in northern BC and the fact that students need to move for those opportunities because they’re not on their doorsteps or at their fingertips,” said Mandi Graham, Executive Director of Engage Sport North.
Sullivan has big plans to go to SFU as a wrestler and compete at the university level, but now she is unable to wrestle in any school-sanctioned events.
Not being able to compete with her teammates has also left Sullivan feeling frustrated as she tries to settle into a new community.
“Being away from your parents at 16 is really hard,” said Sullivan. “I resort to sports and exercising when I'm stressed, but now I have this stress revolving around my sports, so then it is just piling up and piling up and taking away things that I loved, and it just feels unnecessary.”
Sullivan’s family, with support from both her departing and new secondary school, local sports advocates and the local MP, Taylor Bachrach, filed a number of appeals, all of which have been denied.
“It felt like it just got denied without a second look,” said Sullivan. “It felt like it was all for nothing.”
Graham explained that because Sullivan’s parents were unable to find housing upon her needing to start school and could not move with her, the application for a transfer through BC School Sports was denied.
She then applied again based on educational circumstances, since she also needed to move schools for academic requirements, but that was also denied as she was mistakenly still registered in Hazelton as a student despite having taken classes in Smithers.
“We decided we would put in an appeal and hope that they would look at Fiona’s situation of being from a very small community and that she needed to move to receive some services that were not available to her in her home community,” said Graham, adding that they have not yet been able to connect with BC School Sports to further explain some of the barriers facing northern students.
“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,” said Matthew Monkman, Assistant Superintendent of Schools for SD54, in a news release.
“There is no competitive edge to gain in Fiona’s transfer. The programs she needs access to aren’t available in her home community.”
As for Sullivan she just wants to be able to play her sports as soon as possible.
“If this doesn't reach them in time and if they don't fix this problem for me, hopefully, it'll be fixed for future kids,” she added.
“Like my little sister, she’s my best friend, and if she ever wanted to move for sports, I would love for her to have that opportunity – and for every kid in the north who is going through the difficulty of not having enough opportunities – to have the ability to move and get the sports they need and want.”
Highlights inequities for northern athletes
Engage Sport North said it will continue to speak up for Sullivan’s participation in sport at Smithers Secondary School.
“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,” added Graham.
Hazelton is no stranger to Olympic-level wrestling, as the small village is the hometown of Carol Huynh, who is Canada’s first-ever Olympic gold medalist in women’s wrestling.
During her first Olympic Games at Beijing in 2008, Huynh defeated the two-time reigning world champion in the 48kg final to give Canada its first gold medal of the games.
“We just hope that the system can evolve to really take into account the already existing inequities and barriers in northern B.C. for young athletes,” added Graham.