N.S. education minister calls for reinstatement of high school rugby

WATCH: Protests over the Nova Scotia School Athletic Federation's decision to ban rugby for the high school level continued on Friday. Alexa MacLean has the latest.

Nova Scotia’s education minister is calling for high school rugby to be reinstated across the province the day after it was cancelled by the Nova Scotia School Athletic Federation (NSSAF).

In a statement on Friday, Education Minister Zach Churchill said the NSSAF “made the decision without appropriate consultation with school communities” and did not inform the Education Department it intended to make the decision public.

Churchill says that statement contravened the terms and conditions of the Memorandum of Agreement with the department of education.

“Given the perspective offered by the province’s Medical Officer of Health, I have called on NSSAF to reinstate rugby for all high schools immediately for the duration of the season,” Churchill’s statement reads.

READ MORE: ‘Let us play’: N.S. students push back as athletic federation cancels high school rugby

The NSSAF’s board of governors issued a memo Thursday afternoon that said they came to the decision after a “thorough review of incident report data provided by the School Insurance Program.”

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But high school rugby teams and players say the decision took them by surprise — and in some cases, was made public mere hours before scheduled games.

“We were told an hour before our game that we wouldn’t be playing out the rest of our season and a lot of people cried as soon as we were told. And it just wasn’t something we were expecting at all,” said high school player Kelly Baillie.

“There was no warning, no anything. Our coaches and athletic directors at our school didn’t have an idea about it.”

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Baillie was among dozens of protesters gathered outside the Halifax Convention Centre on Friday, outside of the federation’s annual luncheon to celebrate athletes. The crowd donned their rugby jerseys and made their voices heard by chanting, ‘Let us play.’

WATCH: Protests over the Nova Scotia School Athletic Federation’s decision to ban rugby for the high school level continued on Friday. Alexa MacLean has the latest.
Backlash grows over high school rugby cancellation
Backlash grows over high school rugby cancellation

“We want to get rugby in Nova Scotia back and we want to finish out our season, especially for our Grade 12s this year who didn’t know that our last game was our last,” said Baillie.

“They just want to finish the season and we want all to finish the season as a team and have many more seasons to come.”

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Another protest was held after classes Friday evening at Halifax’s Victoria Park, just after Churchill’s statement was released.

‘Not a knee-jerk reaction’

Inside the luncheon, NSSAF’s board of governor chair defended the board’s decision.

“This decision was not a knee-jerk reaction. It was a decision that was made over a long period of time,” said Stephen MacNeil.

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MacNeil says the board unanimously decided that rugby was “not a safe introductory sport at the high school level.”

WATCH: Rugby community responds to cancellation of high school season (May 2, 2019) 

Rugby community responds to cancellation of high school season
Rugby community responds to cancellation of high school season
“The [School Insurance Plan] data has shown us that the number of injuries accumulated from students playing rugby was just too high to continue and with good conscience,” he said.

“Once we determined that rugby was not a safe environment for our students, the board unanimously voted that we should cease playing rugby in the Nova Scotia School Athletic Federation.”

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Medical community and politicians speak out against cancellation

Dr. John Gillis, a local physician who sits on Rugby Nova Scotia’s board and was formerly Rugby Canada’s chief medical officer, calls it “mind-boggling” that the decision was made without consultation with the community. He says although he’s part of Rugby Nova Scotia’s board, he only heard about the cancellation on Twitter on Thursday afternoon.

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He maintains the sport is safe and the rugby community has been diligent about preventing head injuries.

“Rugby has led the way around the world in head injury prevention and assessment. The protocols that are available are amazing. The teaching that we do for officials, coaches, players, is world class. And we’ve done an amazing job of recognizing and reporting head injuries. And that’s what’s wrong with these numbers,” he said.

“We’re reporting the truth. But it’s still only one injury per team per year — 150 over five years. I don’t believe the numbers for the other sports are accurate and we’re being effectively punished for accurately reporting the injuries, recognizing them and making sure these kids are safe.”

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A graph that the Nova Scotia School Athletic Federation provided which indicates the number of insurance claims made over the past five years.
A graph that the Nova Scotia School Athletic Federation provided which indicates the number of insurance claims made over the past five years. Nova Scotia School Athletic Federation

Gillis says he invites the NSSAF to reach out to him and the rugby community to take a closer look at the data and come up with solutions.

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Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Houston is calling on the federation to reinstate high school rugby.

“Nobody wants to see anybody injured — a child, a student — nobody wants to see that for sure,” he said.

“I think the thing for me is, it’s high school sports. It’s kids out being active. Parents have a responsibility too, I mean if parents don’t want their children out playing rugby or any other sport, they can just take them out of the sport. So, let’s leave some of these decisions to the family unit.”

The NDP echoed that criticism of the NSSAF decision.

“Cancelling high school rugby in the middle of the season is unfair to high school students. Yesterday they had a team project, with goals and a plan to accomplish them. Today this has been taken away from them,” said Susan Leblanc, NDP spokesperson for Communities, Culture and Heritage and a former student rugby player, in a news release.

“The safety of student athletes must always be a priority, but a better way to address this would have been to consult players, parents, coaches and others to determine how to move forward — not to cancel a program mid-season that brings great joy and meaning to many students.”

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Former defence minister and MP Peter MacKay, who played rugby at Acadia University and with the Pictou County Rugby Association, is passionate about the game and says he knows hundreds of people associated with the sport. Even his five-year-old son is picking up the sport.

MacKay says he doesn’t understand why the NSSAF would be “so set on such a wrongheaded decision.”

“There doesn’t appear to be much rationale at all to the decision. It’s very short-sighted,” said MacKay. “I’ve talked to a lot of people since this happened, even in P.E.I. where a player died due to a broken neck; even they’re not doing this.”

As for whether rugby could be reinstated, MacNeil says that all new rules and regulations go to their district co-ordinator workshops, and that any recommendations from those workshops are “forwarded to the board,” although he is uncertain if “it’ll go that far with rugby.”

— With files from Alexa MacLean and Reynold Gregor

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