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Athletics and Sports in Canadian Universities

Athletics by Province

Athletics and Sports in Universities in Canada

Many post-secondary schools recognize that campus life is not all about academics, and have put in place athletic programs for students. This can range from granting access to students to community centers off-campus, to promoting independent and intramural activities, to full-on varsity sports with nationally recognized teams.

As part of annual student fees, most athletic programs are free (or at a greatly reduced cost) to full-time students. Part-time students and the public must generally pay for access to these programs.

Department of Athletics

Some schools have a Department of Athletics or Recreation, where a student can get a degree in several areas such as kinesiology, physiotherapy, or sport management. These departments are usually combined with the overall recreational aspects of the school, and are the governing body for the various athletic programs available on campus. Students enrolled in these programs get, in addition to theoretical classroom work, hands-on training using regular users of the athletic facilities.

Varsity sports

Varsity sports teams are the principal athletic teams of Canadian colleges and universities. As such, they compete against other varsity teams in the country. Groups of varsity sports teams are often organized into athletic conferences, which are groups of teams that regularly play each other during a given athletic season. In recognition of their high level of performance, athletes on varsity teams are often given varsity letters.

Varsity teams are given a special name and mascot, and represent the school at athletic tournaments. Getting on a varsity team is not easy; students must demonstrate ability and compete for admission, just as in academics. They must represent the university, the athletic department, and their team in a positive way at all times. They must also agree to abide by all rules and guidelines set by the university, conference and CIS (Canadian Interuniversity Sport). Student-athletes are often held to a higher standard than non-athletes because they are often in the spotlight and visible on and off campus.

For top student-athletes, scholarships are available that allow the student to focus purely on academics and their varsity sport. These are rare and highly sought-after, and may allow students to attend a school they would otherwise not be able to.

Many schools that have developed their sports teams have specialized sports represented: basketball, hockey, swimming, volleyball, and football are all represented in varsity. Some student-athletes go on to play professionally such as in the NHL or CFL, or compete in the Olympics if they are sufficiently qualified.

Intramural team sports

Contrary to varsity sports, intramural sports are played “within” the school, against other intramural teams in that same school. Leagues often exist which allow for continual play throughout the year. Common league sports include ultimate, foosball, dodgeball, ice hockey, and volleyball.

Since intramural sports are not as high-level as varsity sports, admission is generally given to anybody interested (space available), and the focus is more on socializing and comradery vs. the intense competitive nature of varsity sports. Most students wanting to partake in athletics while in post-secondary school will aspire to intramural sports.

Individual sports

The athletics department at a school also usually offers alternatives to team sports. This includes hiking, climbing, sailing, scuba diving, and surfing. Instruction in these is available, as are club outings for a social atmosphere. These can take place on-campus, at accredited facilities, or outside campus.

Instruction is also available in non-traditional sports such as dance, martial arts, yoga, and pilates. Admission is usually first-come, first-served, and may be restricted to full-time students. Some activities are available to the general public.


Depending on the school, facilities can range from none, to Olympic-worthy rinks and stadiums. For those schools with no athletic facilities, arrangements have usually been made with the local community centers and sports facilities to allow students free (or reduced cost) access. This is useful when the school is located within a city center for example, or has various campuses located over a wide geographical area.

Other schools with a dedicated campus can have a variety of facilities available. Common facilities include swimming pools, football stadiums, hockey rinks, and soccer fields. These can be quite elaborate, especially if the school has a nationally-recognized team and thus available funding for such venues. They can also be used for non-athletic activities such as concert venues, rallies, or trade shows. General fitness centers with weights and cardio equipment are usually on campus as well.

Additional facilities generally associated with athletics include bike shops, sporting equipment shops and rentals, and physiotherapy services. These can be all located within the Athletics building, or spread throughout campus as needed.

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