Canada’s National Women’s Soccer Team Wants Equal Pay

Canada’s soccer body has bullied the women’s team into dropping their proposed strike against program cuts and unequal treatment. But winning equality with male athletes will require exactly these kinds of job actions.

Canada's Sophie Schmidt and Sabrina D'Angelo wear shirts that read "Enough is Enough" prior to the 2023 SheBelieves Cup match against the US on February 16, 2023 in Orlando, Florida. (Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images)

The Canadian national women’s soccer team is protesting unfair treatment and fighting Canada Soccer for equal pay, greater transparency, and higher program funding. They’re one of the best soccer teams in the world. Ranked sixth in FIFA’s global list, the team is a 2020 Olympics gold medal and back-to-back bronze medal winner, and a two-time CONCACAF champion.

The team’s goals — resulting from unsatisfactory work conditions — are not new. In the summer of 2022, Lyndsay Helfrich wrote about the issues in these pages when the Canadian national men’s team went on strike to protest, among other things, equal pay.  Ahead of this summer’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, the women’s team announced job action in the face of upcoming program cuts and, once again, unequal treatment by Canada Soccer. The organization and the team’s fans love to sing the praises of the squad when they’re on the field: representing, winning. But what about when they’re pushing for something more?

Writing for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Shireen Ahmed has written an excellent play-by-play of how the situation has unfolded, noting that “[a]cross the world, women’s programs have been treated with disregard” and pointing out that the team has been brought to the brink of exasperation by recalcitrant bosses. “The reality is that job action is not their first choice,” she writes. “Their first choice is to get paid properly and be supported by a federation for doing the work they are brilliant at doing.”

Alas, Canada Soccer forced the team back to work, in time for the SheBelieves Cup, saying the women were not in a legal strike position. As team forward and captain Christine Sinclair put it in response, “This is not over. We will continue to fight for everything we deserve and we will win. The SheBelieves is being played in protest.”

It is shameful for the organization to force the team to play under such circumstances. The squad has responded by showing up and taking the pitch in purple shirts that read “Enough is Enough” instead of the team’s usual red or white. The US team stood in solidarity with them.

Canada Soccer, for their part, continues with their heavy-handed opposition to the player’s protest — an obstinacy that will not serve them in the long run. Professional athletes are workers. Some are paid extraordinarily well — not players for the Canadian national women’s team, which is part of the problem — but players are fundamentally workers who sell their labor to owners and follow the dictates of bosses. They put their bodies and future health on the line day after day. They generate massive returns for owners. They do not own the teams they play for. They do not set the rules. When things go poorly, they are discarded and left to sort out their lives on their own. Careers tend to be on the shorter side. For lower-paid pros, the situation is often particularly precarious. That’s why fair pay, better working conditions, and program support are important.

As team center back Vanessa Gilles notes, however, the team is seeking “much more than player compensation.” She asserts, “There are two larger issues that exist within Canada Soccer” and cites poor governance and gender inequity, each of which is patently obvious as a persistent problem within the organization. She says the team is “not asking for money that does not exist in our organization.” Rather, they want “the same opportunity to perform” and “the necessary changes within the organization to ensure financial sustainability.” In other words, they want equal pay and sustainable support for both national teams. They also want adequate funding for the youth program, which allows young players to develop their skills within the sport and to find their way to high-quality teams. One would think Canada Soccer would recognize these issues as being in their own interest, too. But bosses are going to be bosses. The organization is dead set on failing and bullying its workers, even to its own detriment.

The House of Commons Heritage Committee, by way of their sport mandate, has taken an interest in the case. Parliamentarians, led by New Democratic Party MP Peter Julian, have requested Canada Soccer’s senior management appear before the committee in early March. As the Sports Network (TSN)’s Rick Westhead reports, Julian has already made it clear he expects them to show up —and to offer answers — saying, “If Canada Soccer stonewalls that would be a mistake. They need to be transparent with the Canadian public. If they are not, we will compel them to come back for more questions.” Julian has also threatened the organization’s leadership with subpoenas. The committee, and Parliament, ought to hold the line and dig deep into the organization’s finances, policies, and procedures. The more light shone on the matter, the better.

Changes at Canada Soccer are long overdue. Structural policy and governance direction failures have undermined the national program, which succeeds despite the organization’s shortcomings and its exploited players — which is to say, exploited workers.

Until the country’s national soccer body commits to changes, we ought to support the protests and join the women’s time in demanding change and, to whatever extent necessary, job action. These workers are doing their jobs — and doing them well, taking the team into the top world rankings, inspiring new players to join the sport, and serving as a rallying point for the country. They’re also building a national program of which the country can be proud. The very least Canadians can do is have their back as they fight for what they deserve.