March 8, 2023

Diversity Is Strength Conversations: Changing the sports landscape, The Canadian Press, Amber Bracken/

Kate Beirness very succinctly put the conversation she was a part of into perspective.

Beirness, the host of the CFL on TSN and the network’s coverage of the Toronto Raptors (and more of the network’s offerings) was virtually flanked by Edmonton Elks’ game day host Ashley Callingbull and BC Lions’ defensive assistant coach Tanya Henderson. Reflecting on the shift that she’s seen with women involved in all aspects of sports through her career, she said she encountered a great deal of positive feedback from fans she encountered over the past year.

“I can’t tell you…just how many people say, seeing women hosting, women on the sidelines, it’s just been the most remarkable thing. People saying, ‘Our daughters are watching this,'” she said. “It’s come tenfold since I started. We still have a long way to go, in my opinion, but we’re definitely moving in the right direction.”

Beirness, Callingbull and Henderson joined Donnovan Bennett for this year’s second installment of the CFL’s Diversity Is Strength Conversations series. In line with International Women’s Day and as a part of International Women’s Month, the discussion focused on changing the sports landscape.

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The panelists in this conversation are all examples of progress made. Beirness and Natasha Staniszewski became TSN’s first-ever female anchor team on Sportscentre in 2013 and Beirness is the network’s first-ever female host of the CFL on TSN. Callingbull joined the Edmonton Elks’ staff in 2021, intent on building meaningful relationships with the Indigenous community. Henderson completed her first season on Rick Campbell’s staff in BC, making her the first-ever female full-time coaching hire in CFL history.

While that progress is celebrated, as Beirness says, there’s still a long way to go.

All three detail the unique challenges that come with working as women in male-dominated fields. Beirness recalled not being able to get into locker rooms 16 years ago when she was an interning sports reporter. Callingbull discussed people dismissing her as an Indigenous woman in a man’s space. Henderson shared that she encountered a number of hurdles at the minor football and the high school level that she just thought were part of the football world until she got to the Lions.

“I feel like we should belong wherever we want to belong,” Callingbull said.

“For me, being in that space has been very great for me because I’ve been able to give more opportunity for other people.”

That’s a sentiment that resonates between all three as they look to the future. Beirness channels one of her inspirations, NBA broadcaster Doris Burke, and is willing to talk to any aspiring female broadcaster any time. She also has built up her charity, Her Mark, to the point that it’s venturing across the country to provide support for promising young women, while also for the first time handing out scholarships to commemorate International Women’s Day.

While Henderson has broken a barrier in her field, becoming the league’s first-ever full-time female coaching hire, she said she feels most rewarded seeing the game grow at the grassroots level for girls. Watching the girls’ tackle football league she started continue to blossom creates avenues that she didn’t have at that age and gives her hope for the generation coming up behind her.

Callingbull is aware that her presence at Elks games provides a representation that Indigenous people don’t see enough of across the board in Canada. Her decision to join the Elks was linked to the organization hearing her voice and providing opportunity to people.

“I wanted to see change. Not just the name change, but change that can uplift other people,” she said. “I’ve been seeing it but there can always be more.” 

She has worked with the Fort McKay Spirits, Canada’s first Indigenous girls football team, to get them exposure to the Elks.

“Because of that partnership and they are women, they’re getting these experiences. It really has opened their eyes and given them inspiration of what they can do, what they can accomplish,” she said.

“They’re like, ‘We’re on this field now. What else can we do next?’ They were the first Indigenous to do this, what can they be the first next? They’re also opening the door for other women as well.

“From my perspective, I feel like I’ve got an opportunity. But with that I’ve created more opportunity for other women as well. And that, for me is really important.”

Henderson loves the idea of that Spirits team learning the game and getting exposure to everything it can offer. She’s been celebrated a lot over the last year, but these are the things that she’s really encouraged by.

“If there’s no roots, there’s no tree,” Henderson said. “They really are a big, big piece of what I am inspired by and what pushes me forward.”

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