By Brendan Shykora
Pam Buisa is the type of person who can’t sit still.
At 23 years old, the Ottawa-born rugby player balances work and school with an Olympic-calibre training program. She does this on top of being a student supervisor at the University of Victoria, where she helps students of diverse backgrounds apply for scholarships and bursaries.
That’s why when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down her chance to join Canada’s national rugby 7s squad at the Tokyo Olympic Games this summer, Buisa couldn’t stay on the sidelines.
“I thought to myself, I can’t be stagnant. I can’t be content with my position and my role in this community, because it’s served me so much in my development,” she told the Sportspage in early June from Vancouver Island, where she’s lived and trained for the past five years.
Alongside a few friends and teammates, Buisa created Vancouver Island Steps Up, a community relief fund designed to bridge the gaps in the various forms of financial aid that have been doled out by the provincial and federal governments throughout the pandemic.
In less than three weeks, the fund raised more than $15,000 for people disproportionately affected by the crisis. Single mothers taking care of their children at home, people living with disabilities and international students stranded by border closures—these were among the people who applied for, and received, critical support.
“One size fits all methods are a good start, but we are not a one size fits all community,” the fund’s webpage reads. It’s a statement that makes the group’s ethos clear: Vancouver Island is diverse, and the people most in need of support are the people who struggle in ways that aren’t always seen.
That idea took on a whole new level of meaning on May 25, when George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis in a chilling case of police brutality. Floyd’s death was recorded by bystanders and reverberated around the world, giving new levels of energy and urgency to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Once again, Buisa stepped up.
It started with a conversation with a friend who reached out on June 1. She told Buisa she was tired, that she couldn’t keep scrolling on her phone and hearing what she was hearing. Viewing instances of racism from afar on social media can be a reminder of the racism that exists much closer to home, as Buisa herself can attest.
“When I see something that happens I can only think about my brothers and sisters and my dad and my mom, and how even though it’s in America, it’s in our backyards—whether it’s overt racism or whether it’s a bit more subtle forms of racism,” she said.
The two kept talking and started expanding the conversation, and before they knew it they’d organized more than 1,000 people into a social distancing anti-racism rally, complete with a march to the B.C. legislature.
Buisa describes the event as somewhat spontaneous, but something the present moment called for.
“Literally 50 minutes before the actual event we had just bought a megaphone, and we were like ‘let’s go! Now’s the time!”
She helped organize another rally the following week, this time filling up Centennial Square wall-to-wall. For Buisa, the event was about conversing and understanding—but ultimately acting.
“I think it’s important, especially now, that we challenge discussions surrounding race and our relationships with our privilege, because in order for us to move forward we need to make a conscientious decision to do something, and not just make it a trend or a hashtag.”
The pandemic overtook the world at a time when Buisa was building momentum.
She’d picked rugby up in the seventh grade and continued to play at the competitive level locally with Heritage College CEGEP, the Ottawa Irish and Quebec provincial team before her move out West to play for the University of Victoria. She’s long been associated with the national program, having won a silver medal with Team Canada at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games, before winning a gold medal at last summer’s 2019 Pan Am Games.
After last year’s success, she felt she was finding her place on the national team.
“This was probably my best season in terms of my consistency on the field, playing time and amount of times I was making the international team.” she said.
But in many ways, she’s already found her place in a sport that allows her differences from others to be her strengths.
“I was this lanky, tall girl that was really muscular, who was awkward and wasn’t confident in her skin and what she looked like,” she said, reflecting on the days when she first started playing rugby 15s.
“I found a sport where I can be tall and have a place, I can be strong and I have a place, and I feel like that’s what’s so beautiful about the sport of rugby,” she said. “We possess different qualities, different leadership, different backgrounds, and we’re so diverse—and I think that’s a reflection of Canada.”
The road ahead to the next Olympics is an uncertain one, but for Buisa the pandemic has forced her to stay present and live in the moment.
“It’s like you do a countdown to the Olympics, you do a countdown to when you have to train, and you almost miss the meaningful moments that are available to you,” she said.
Living presently in the current moment means facing a great deal of challenges head-on, but Buisa says the days of staying physically apart have reinforced her core belief in the power of doing things together.
“The more I’m in this pandemic the more I realize that depending on people and human interaction and being connected is the most important thing,” Buisa added.