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Director - Social Purpose Programs, For Good and TELUS Wise
Pink Shirt Day is on February 24. It’s a day dedicated to raising awareness of bullying and supporting programs that foster children’s healthy self-esteem. Everyone is encouraged to wear pink to symbolize a lack of tolerance for bullying.
To mark Pink Shirt Day this year, we’re spotlighting the issue of bullying in sport. We had a great conversation with Jill Saulnier, a celebrated Canadian hockey player.
Jill was an Olympic Silver Medalist in 2018 and has played more than 100 games in a Team Canada jersey. She is currently training to represent Canada at the 2021 Women’s World Championships (which are being held in her hometown of Halifax) and the 2022 Olympics in Beijing. Jill is also a proud ambassador of The Code, a joint initiative between TELUS and Hockey Canada aimed at improving awareness about bullying within the hockey community and helping hockey families stay safe online.
Jill shares her insights and experiences regarding women and sport, bullying and sport, her involvement in The Code and why it’s so important to just be kind - at the rink, online and in everyday life.
JS: Growing up in Halifax, we had a rink in our backyard. I started skating and playing hockey when I was five years old. It was a family affair. My mom and dad both took turns flooding the rink, so we always had a fresh sheet of ice. It was a mantra in our family – wake up, skate on the pond; go to school, come home and skate on the pond.
From a really young age, I had a relentless passion to have a hockey stick in my hand. When I watched the women win the 2002 Olympics, I knew I would do that someday. I kept skating and playing. There wasn’t a full girls’ team in Halifax, so by the time I was 14, I knew I had to leave Halifax if I wanted to get serious about my training. When I was 15, I went to train in the U.S, and that decision was a real turning point in my career. I then got invited to play for the national team, which brought me back to Canada. I joined the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA). Every step of the way, I followed the opportunities to become the best athlete and best self I could be.
JS: There is a real lack of visibility and opportunity for female athletes. Sometimes, there aren’t teams to play on. I’ve seen it firsthand. I always tell young girls to find a passion in sports - there are so many different options available. Experiment and find what you love to do. Sports have enriched my life in so many ways – playing hockey has been a huge source of confidence for me, and I’ve made lifelong friends. To be successful in my sport, you need to be powerful and explosive. So to me, there is such beauty in women who are strong, healthy and love what they are doing. With social media, there are so many skewed messages about body type and body image. Playing sports changes that narrative and provides an alternative message. Strong is beautiful.
JS: When I was younger, I didn’t experience bullying personally. I was dialed in to what I needed to do. If people tried to get in my way, I tuned them out to stay on track. I had great people around me who provided ongoing support, so nobody was trying to knock me off my path. Cyberbullying is so prevalent now. And I have experienced it. I’m proud of my accomplishments, but there have been times when I felt cyberbullied or was affected by negative comments online.
Sadly, it’s a trend with women and sports. There are people sitting anonymously behind screens trying to tear down strong, passionate people who are chasing their goals. Most athletes are strong enough to detach from that negativity and not give it any power. But there are times when someone sees something online that is upsetting or hurtful and internalizes it. Usually people that bully others are really good at targeting insecurities. If it happens to you, it is important to reach out to a friend or family member and talk about your experience. Don’t let it steer you off your path. Acknowledge it, talk about it and find the support you need to let it go.
JS: The Code tackles the issues of cyberbullying by offering workshops for coaches, players and families. I got involved in 2018. And I am humbled to work with TELUS and The Code team to inspire change. The values of The Code are really meaningful to me as an athlete. There is such a strong tie between sport and the digital world. It’s important to acknowledge these issues and give voice to them. I am very proud to be part of a platform that is educating people and making real change. Q: What is your advice around how we can #EndBullying in sport? JS: We need to use the platforms available to educate ourselves and be better. Cyberbullying can be really hurtful. In sports specifically, cyberbullying can affect how people feel and perform. It’s important to have a community of support and to learn skills and strategies to deal with cyberbullying in a healthy, productive way. I also think that properly enforced zero tolerance policies can go a long way in driving change and lessening the instances and impacts of bullying.
JS: Since the pandemic hit, we’ve all had a lot more time isolated and inside with our phones. As athletes, our normal schedules of training and playing have completely changed. Like most people, we are resorting to the Internet to pass time. Comparing has been a big issue for a lot of athletes. There is this immense pressure to be better when you see what others are doing online. We’ve also had to adjust to new ways of training. Earlier this year, we completed our first Hockey Canada camp in a year. We were there for 14 days, with very strict protocols. We had to communicate via online platforms and work out in our hotel rooms. Right now, it comes down to attitude and focusing on making the best of every moment, no matter the situation.
JS: Be kind. Making people around you feel good is so important. Instead of tearing people down, bring people up. That’s only going to make you a better person. We have so many challenges in our world, especially now. It’s more important than ever to just be kind. I’m incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by wonderful people and athletes. Positive, supportive people bring you up. Don’t let people behind a screen bring you down.
To join in our shared commitment to #EndBullying and to learn more about The Code, the pledge, the playbook and workshops for parents, coaches and players, please visit hockeycanada.ca/thecode.