Curling Canada under fire for limiting eligibility for pregnancy exemptions
Residency rules. Pregnancy exemptions. Confusion, questions and ire.
A Curling Canada news release intended to confirm the draw for the national women's championship instead sparked a debate about inclusivity, equality and options for teams with players who are pregnant.
Prominent curlers from across the country took the national sports organization to task this week for the wording and creation of an exemption that only allowed teams ranked in the top five to apply.
When a fourth-ranked team was able to bring in an out-of-province free agent as a replacement for a player close to her due date, queries about the rules — along with some sharp criticism — started rolling in.
"I'm a little bit disheartened to see that the rule seems to be really favouring only the elite in Canada," said sixth-ranked Casey Scheidegger, one of three wild-card entries at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts.
Scheidegger and her sister Jessie Haughian are both pregnant and due in June.
However, since the Alberta-based team is outside the top five, it was ineligible to apply for the same exemption that was granted to the team skipped by fourth-ranked Kaitlyn Lawes, per federation rules.
"Us being No. 6 as well and not knowing anything about it and finding out yesterday was, I guess, interesting to see that announcement," Scheidegger told The Canadian Press on Wednesday. "Obviously I think the most glaring thing on the rule is that it just seems to be unequal."
Her sister also chimed in via Twitter.
"I'm confused to what position/standing in CTRS (rankings) has to do with this," Haughian said in a post. "Pregnancy is pregnancy."
The team, which already has an import player in Manitoba's Kate Hogan, made plans to add Kristie Moore as an alternate. Moore, a 2010 Olympian based in Grande Prairie, Alta., has played with the team on several occasions in recent seasons.
With Haughian experiencing occasional discomfort and pain, Scheidegger said she was pleased Moore was available and expects her to see plenty of playing time.
"Would we have applied for the exemption? Potentially," Scheidegger said from Lethbridge, Alta. "I guess for us it wasn't made an option. So we abided by the residency rules because that's what we thought was available to us."
Under those residency rules, at least three of four players must live or have birthright status in their respective province or territory. Only one free agent is allowed per team unless an exemption is granted.
Lawes, vice Selena Njegovan and lead Kristin MacCuish are Winnipeg-based while Calgary resident Jocelyn Peterman is the import. Curling Canada granted Njegovan a pregnancy leave and allowed Edmonton-based free agent Laura Walker to replace her.
Since their ranking was inside the cutline, that team was eligible to apply for a "pregnancy exemption that allowed them to add a free agent player for the national Scotties who didn’t participate in their provincial/territorial playdowns," Curling Canada said in its release.
Despite that wording, Curling Canada CEO Kathy Henderson said it's not actually a pregnancy exemption, but rather a "residency exemption" and that parental leave is available for anyone who requests it.
She added the decision to limit eligibility for the exemption to just five teams was not arbitrary.
"It wasn't like we were trying to leave anyone out," Henderson told The Canadian Press from Toronto. "What we were looking at is over patterns of time, who are those teams that are traditionally receiving funding from our national team program.
"That's where we really pegged it."
As a result, 13 of the 18 teams that qualified for the Feb. 17-26 event in Kamloops, B.C., could not apply to make similar lineup changes if needed since they're outside the top five.
Several notable curlers — including Olympian Dawn McEwen, Mike McEwen, Felix Asselin and Beth Peterson — criticized the eligibility rule on social media.
"Timing a pregnancy can be stressful and difficult for a lot of women athletes," Dawn McEwen said on Twitter. "A rule that discriminates against some women competing in the same national field is troubling.
"Please give everyone the same opportunity Curling Canada."
Walker is focusing on mixed doubles this season but has subbed for Team Lawes on occasion. But her addition at the Scotties would not have been possible if Lawes was ranked sixth or lower.
"The exemption applied only to top-five teams because their ability to replace a player with someone with an equal level of ability and commitment is limited," the Curling Canada release said.
Asselin, who will skip the Quebec entry at next month's Tim Hortons Brier, called the rule an example of "elitism" and "favouritism."
"All women curlers should be allowed to get replaced in the case of pregnancy with someone that follows all the residency rule(s)," Asselin tweeted. "It can't be an excuse to add an import. This is very sad."
Rankings standings provide a solid picture of team performance but they're not necessarily the best measuring stick for ability or potential. Many teams miss bigger point-earning events because of a limited travel schedule or a desire to play only select bonspiels.
For example, the 2022 Scotties was won by top-ranked Kerri Einarson of Manitoba, who beat Northern Ontario's Krista McCarville — currently 61st in the rankings — in the final.
Einarson had advanced with a semifinal win over New Brunswick's Andrea Kelly, who's now ranked 16th.
In the current rankings, Einarson (284.750 points) leads Ontario's Rachel Homan (270.750), Manitoba's Jennifer Jones (206.000), Lawes (183.250) and British Columbia's Clancy Grandy (166.625).
Scheidegger (161.750) is just behind in sixth, slightly ahead of seventh-ranked Meghan Walter (160.500).
Peterson, who made her Scotties debut in 2021, also weighed in on the rule via Twitter.
"I'm sorry, but is this not disrespectful to other pregnant women?" she tweeted. "I just can't get behind giving the exemption to some teams and not to others."
Some curlers compete while pregnant — Homan was memorably eight months pregnant when she reached the 2021 Scotties final — but sometimes substitute players are needed.
Scheidegger called the exemption section of the news release a "very odd thing for me to read."
"We do have so many teams that could be in a very similar situation and looking for a player," she said. "Obviously you want to get a player that is going to make your team strong, especially when you're competing at a national event."
The Scotties champion will represent Canada at the March 18-26 world women's curling championship in Sandviken, Sweden.
Also Wednesday, Curling Canada announced the 2023 PointsBet Invitational will be played Sept. 26-Oct. 1 at the Sixteen Mile Sports Complex in Oakville, Ont.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 1, 2023.
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press