#2: The Canadian Wheelchair Sport Association through the 1970s

Written by Laurel Crosby

For the Canadian Wheelchair Sport Association (CWSA), the 1970s would be defined as a decade of challenges, growth, development, and change. Some of these challenges included the mandate of the organization, financial instability, recruitment and retention of volunteers, new athlete identification, and the creation of an umbrella group to oversee the national disability sport organizations.

The early 70s saw the CWSA wrestle with its mandate; a sport organization, or a sport and recreation organization. The recreational component of the CWSA at this time was significant, with activities including: cribbage, chess, checkers, photography and speech writing. The inclusion of these recreational activities was controversial for the Board of Directors but still managed to become an official part of the CWSA’s mission by the start of the decade. This recreational component would continue throughout the early years; with the Board officially sanctioning recreational activities by the CWSA at national competitions. However, the growth of sport-specific development later in the decade marked the demise of recreation within the CWSA’s sphere of programming. To some, the inclusion of recreational activities lowered the image of sport and belittled the organization’s status as an elite national sport governing body, and these activities were soon replaced by new sports such as: volleyball, dartchery, slalom, table tennis, and Murderball.

Financial challenges plagued the CWSA through the decade. Facing a shortage of funding in the early years, the CWSA resorted to unique fundraising initiatives such as collecting beer caps to be turned in to breweries for cash and raffling off collectible Bricklin cars purchased by Gary McPherson. As the organization continued to grow, federal funding increased, as well as funding opportunities with the Royal Bank of Canada and the Ada Mackenzie Memorial Foundation. Unfortunately, as the CWSA neared the end of the decade, it once again faced significant funding challenges: a decrease in federal funding for national games, the end of access to lottery dollars, and the instability and inconsistent support from the federal government as its political parties and sport ministers changed rapidly within a short time period. Once more, fundraising became a top priority for the CWSA.

Recruiting and retaining volunteers over the years became a concern for the organization. While some of the volunteers were very committed to the CWSA and in fact faced burnout due to their dedication, it appeared that there were some who were thought to be not committed enough. Recognition of the need for volunteer recruitment, appreciation and retention was acknowledged.

Athlete recruitment also developed into an issue as the CWSA moved through the 70s. With the decline of individuals affected by polio or military casualties, the CWSA needed to change their recruitment strategies and look not just at individuals with spinal cord injuries, but also at individuals with amputations or multiple sclerosis. As a result of the inclusion of athletes other than those with a spinal cord injury, a new classification system was created. The addition of these athletes had a significant impact on the CWSA, disability sport in Canada, and on disability sport internationally.

The CWSA was not the only organization for athletes with a disability to experience growth in the 70s. New national disability sport organizations were formed, such as the Canadian Amputee Sport Association, the Canadian Blind Sports Association, the Canadian Association of Disabled Skiers, and the Canadian Cerebral Palsy Sport Association. This provided increased opportunities for athletes with disabilities to be involved at a competitive level and a new model for multi-sport national games. Recognizing and supporting this multi-disability format, the federal government created an umbrella organization to oversee these disability sport organizations. Originally entitled the Coordinating Committee for Sports for the Physically Disabled (CC-SFD), it eventually changed its name to the Canadian Federation of Sport Organizations for the Disabled (CFSOD). Today it is known as the Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC).

By the end of the 70s the CWSA had experienced tremendous growth and change. The recreational component from the early years had been replaced by new sports, athletes were provided with opportunities to compete at a national and international level, public awareness of athletes with a disability continued to increase due to events such as the Torontolympiad, and there were discussions around the inclusion of athletes into the able-bodied sport system. The CWSA had however, gone “full circle” in terms of funding and entered the 80s with a funding crisis.