O’Keefe chairing reimagined SPORT4ONTARIO
Even during COVID-19 times, Michele O’Keefe has her hands full as Niagara College’s associate director of athletics and recreation and serving on the FIBA Central Board and the Canada Summer Games Niagara 2022 Board of Directors.
But when she was approached this fall to join and become the volunteer chair of SPORT4ONTARIO, the Welland native was quick to sign up for the group that also includes Johnny Misley, Andrew Backer, Jeremy Cross, Gord Grace, Cyril Leeder, Debbie Low, Fran Rider, and Myles Spencer.
“In Niagara and in Ontario, there are an awful lot of resources but people don’t always look past their local area,” the former president and CEO of Canada Basketball said. “I like to approach things from a building perspective. How can we show the kids of today and the young adults who want to work in sport, what to be? How do we make sure that in Niagara, for me, and in Ontario for our group that we have the best sports development system and we are using our tools to build our community. How to we make sure that we are doing that to the ultimate? That’s what floats my boat.”
In a recent press release, SPORT4ONTARIO was described as not-for-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to the promotion of sport and physical activity in Ontario.
According to O’Keefe, Margaret Emin started the group more than 15 years ago and it was run out of an office in the Sport Alliance building in Toronto. At the time, the building also housed many of the provincial sports organizations. Emin was looking for a structure to support provincial sport and multi-sport associations and she organized professional developments sessions and lobbied governments on behalf of sports groups.
Around 2015, Emin left the organization and with dramatic reductions of staff, the group dramatically cut back the services it was able to deliver. It had a very small board of directors whose main role was to issue tax receipts through the National Sport Trust Fund – Ontario. That initiative allowed provincial sport and multi-sport organizations and their members the ability to create revenue generation programs for which charitable tax receipts, recognized by the Canada Revenue Agency, were provided for qualifying donations.
In November, the board of directors stepped down and the new directors were acclaimed and set about reimagining the group.
“Right now, we are trying to understand the process regarding the trust fund’s operation,” O’Keefe said. “What we want to be able to do is improve the current status of sport in Ontario. Ontario, I believe, is currently the only province that doesn’t have an organization separate from the government to help with sport.”
The goal is not to build athlete development programs.
“We are looking to help with succession planning, professional development for young staff, mentorship programs and things like that so we have a more organized voice for sport in Ontario.”
The group had previously received funding through the Trillium Fund grant but is not receiving any government support.
“We are independent group of nine volunteers,” she said.
It is hoping to attract a bit of seed money to develop a strategic plan, but it’s still early in the process.
“We want to make sure that we are transparent and that all of the sports feel they have a voice on their behalf,” O’Keefe said. “We are trying to make sure we build that trust and they know that there is a voice that can speak on their behalf.”
Gaining that trust will be a process.
“What we want to do is make sure people see us as a positive entity and that we are here to support the sport environment in Ontario and take our rightful place in Canada,” O’Keefe said. “One of the challenges will be is that traditionally there hasn’t been that entity. It will take us a while for people to come to recognize who we are and what we are trying to do.
“We are not trying to take over anything and we are here as support.”
The group has the support of the provincial government.
“Sport4Ontario will be an important advocacy, planning and coordinating voice for sport as we confront COVID-19 and its impact on our young athletes and sport organizations,” said Lisa MacLeod, the Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries, in a press release. “I am excited to work with the new board of directors as they continue their legacy of a productive relationship with the Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries. I look forward to supporting their efforts to bring innovation to sport in Ontario.”