Canada Takes on Their Federation at the SheBelieves Cup

Canadian women’s team asks for equality; Canada Soccer offers a lawsuit in response.

By Elisha Gunaratnam

The Canadian women’s soccer team huddles before a friendly against Argentina on October 6, 2022. This was one of the games that the team has claimed that it was not paid for. (AP Photo/Juan Carlos Toro del Rio)

When players on the Canadian women’s soccer team sent out a series of cryptic tweets on the morning of February 10, some fans thought that the day would conclude with an announcement about equal pay. After all, the team had been in contract negotiations with Canada Soccer for months, and what would be a better time to announce an equal pay agreement than right before the SheBelieves Cup? Instead, February 10 ended on quite a different note. At 4:35 PM ET, the Canadian Soccer Players Association announced that they would be taking job action because of proposed cuts to the national team programs for 2023, namely, cuts that Canada Soccer claimed would affect the federation’s ability to “adequately fund the Women’s National Team.” Later that night, team captain Christine Sinclair and forward Janine Beckie stated that the players were “on strike” and that they would not participate in “any Canadian Soccer Association activities,” including the SheBelieves Cup that is set to begin this Thursday.

Canada Soccer responded with a press release that highlighted their “proven track record of supporting women’s soccer,” and showed the true nature of that commitment less than 24 hours later when they threatened to sue the players for millions of dollars if they did not play. As a result, the Canadian Soccer Players Association announced that they would resume training activities and play in the SheBelieves Cup as scheduled. 

Why Did The Players Go On Strike?

It is no secret that the men’s and women’s national teams have had significant conflict with Canada Soccer over the past year

On June 5, 2022, just two hours before a friendly against Panama, Canada Soccer was forced to call off the match after players announced they would not take the field as a way of protesting the organization’s lack of financial transparency.

What pushed the women’s team to take action on February 10 was the news that there would be significant cuts to the national team programs for 2023. Already, the cuts have resulted in the women’s team having fewer training camp days and training camp windows, reduced the number of players and staff invited to camps, and limited youth teams’ activities. On top of this, players “continue to face immense uncertainty about compensation” and have been told that “Canada Soccer cannot adequately fund the Women’s National Team.”

In an interview with TSN, Christine Sinclair and Janine Beckie said that the players were fed up with Canada Soccer’s treatment of its teams, and called for a change in leadership within the organization. 

“Saying that we’re outraged is an understatement,” Beckie said. “There’s not really words to describe how it feels to be here in camp with the national team and know we are not being given the same resources that our men’s team was given last year to prepare for their World Cup… I don’t like the word fair. But it is so incredibly unfair to the women, and the staff, and to everyone that supports this team, works for this team, is a fan of this team. We’ve had enough. It’s way, way, too far gone.”

“It hurts, I’m not going to lie,” Sinclair said. “We all represent this country proudly. We’ve shared some of the greatest moments together. But to not feel that support from your own federation has been hard in the past. But it’s gotten to a point where, at least for me personally, until this is resolved I can’t represent this federation. I’m such a competitor that breaks my heart and kills me…”

Jessie Fleming, a midfielder for Canada and Chelsea, took to Instagram on February 11 to further expand on the team’s grievances with the federation.

“There are two larger issues that exist within Canada Soccer,” she wrote in her post. “1. Poor Governance—Financial mismanagement, lack of transparency, the widely reported deal between Canada Soccer and Canada Soccer Business ensures that the national programs do not benefit from the increased investment in the sport.

“2. Gender Inequality. In the last two years, there have been significant funding discrepancies between women’s and men’s national programs.

“Both women’s and men’s national programs have received significant budget cuts in 2023, which: affects our ability to properly prepare for the upcoming Women’s World Cup (and) starves our youth programs of funding.”

“We are not asking for money that does not exist in our organization. We are asking for (1) the same opportunity to perform and (2) the necessary changes within the organization to ensure financial sustainability moving forward, ultimately supporting both the senior national teams and youth development.”

Financial Discrepancies

Canada Soccer has claimed that it does not have the funds to properly operate or meet its players’ compensation demands, but according to the Players Association, Canada Soccer “has consistently refused or blatantly ignored requests for access to its financial records.”

Players on both the men’s and women’s soccer teams have expressed their confusion about Canada Soccer’s alleged financial predicament. 

“Canada’s national teams have never been more successful, or attracting more corporate dollars,” they wrote. “Yet despite these steps forward, we are still stuck asking the same question… where is the funding?”

“Canada Soccer is bringing in these new shiny sponsors whose aim is to grow the game and to support not only the senior national teams but the youth programs, yet where’s the money?” Sinclair said during Friday’s interview. “Our budget has been cut smaller than it has ever been, at least in recent years, so as players it just doesn’t make sense anymore.”

While both national team programs are experiencing significant cuts this year, the players on the women’s team pointed out that the men’s team received appropriate funding leading up to their World Cup in Qatar.

“In 2022, significant dollars and resources were poured into our men’s national team to ensure there were no gaps in their preparation for the 2022 Men’s World Cup,” the women’s team players wrote. “Now that our World Cup is approaching, the women’s national team players are being told to prepare to perform at a world-class level without that same support—to simply make do with less. This is an unacceptable burden to put on the shoulders of our players, especially in the most crucial cycle for our team. We are left feeling frustrated and, once again, deeply disrespected by Canada Soccer.”

Canada Soccer may soon find itself having to answer some of these questions in front of government officials because it has not offered an explanation on how it spent the federal grants that were designated for the women’s soccer team. In fact, the men’s national team has called on Canada’s Minister of Sport, Pascale St-Onge, to intervene in the situation. From 2018-19 to 2021-22, Canada Soccer received $12.7 million from Canada’s Own the Podium program, cash earmarked for the women’s program because of its international success. Despite specific funding being set aside for the women’s team, in 2021, Canada Soccer spent $11 million on the men’s team compared to $5.1 million on the women’s team. Women’s national team players have said that Canada Soccer has ignored their demands to see how that money has been spent. 

Return To Play

The Canadian women’s team was forced to call off its strike on February 11 after Canada Soccer threatened legal action against the players if they did not return to work and commit to playing Thursday’s game against the U.S. Women’s National Team at the SheBelieves Cup.

The players stated that “they could not afford the risks” that personal action against them by Canada Soccer would create, particularly because Canada Soccer had not yet paid them for the 17 matches they played in 2022.

“To be clear. We are being forced back to work for the short term. This is not over. Will will continue to fight for everything we deserve and we will win. The She Believes is being played in protest,” wrote Christine Sinclair on Twitter.

Quinn, who plays for OL Reign in the NWSL, echoed Sinclair’s statement. “We are being forced back to work for the next few weeks. While stepping on a field continuing to provide labour for an organization that upholds gender inequality goes against every fibre of my being, I will continue to do so (for now) in protest.”

Canada Soccer defended its actions in a press release, writing that the players “were not and are not in a legal strike position under Ontario labor law,” and that “Canada Soccer was not prepared to jeopardize the SheBelieves Cup tournament, the preparation it would afford the Women’s National Team for the upcoming FIFA World Cup, nor the experience it would afford countless fans who had undoubtedly traveled to Orlando to see their National Team heroes.”

The SheBelieves Cup Is No Stranger To Protest

While Canada and the United States are typically fierce rivals in soccer (and most other sports), American players have been some of the Canadians’ biggest allies over the course of the past few days. Megan Rapinoe, Rose Lavelle, Alex Morgan, Tierna Davidson, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Kristie Mewis have all used their social media platforms to advocate for the Canadian women’s team, and Rapinoe reached out to the Canadian Soccer Players Association on her Instagram story to offer the support of the U.S. women’s soccer team.

The Americans have used the SheBelieves Cup as a ground for protest before. In 2019, the US women’s soccer team wore inside-out practice jerseys when they stepped onto the field to play against Japan in the final game of the SheBelieves Cup. The players chose to hide the logo of the country’s soccer federation in response to claims made by the United States Soccer Federation pertaining to their equal-pay lawsuit. 

With the two teams kicking off the SheBelieves Cup on Thursday, fans can expect there to be some form of protest against Canada Soccer at the game. Rick Westhead of TSN has already reported that players have been wearing their jerseys inside-out during practice sessions.

The SheBelieves Cup is part of U.S. Soccer’s SheBelieves initiative to “inspire and empower women and girls in sport and beyond.” It’s meant to be a celebration of women’s soccer, not a space where athletes are bullied into suiting up for their countries.
If history repeats itself, the Canadian players might see the change in leadership that they have been pushing for. Carlos Codeiro, the former president of the United States Soccer Federation, resigned soon after the 2019 SheBelieves Cup after being the subject of public backlash. With the Canadian women’s soccer team indicating that their return to play is temporary, and with the international soccer community rallying behind them, Nick Bontis’ days as president of the Canadian Soccer Association could be coming to an end.

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