In a move that reflects the ongoing protests promoting equality and racial justice across North America, Canadian figure skating reality show Battle of the Blades is making diversity a major priority for the upcoming sixth season with its selection of competitors and judges.
Four Black athletes and one Black judge will be taking part in the new season, and three female hockey players are participating for the first time in the show’s history.
Former Calgary Flames player Akim Aliu, who has been vocal about the racial discrimination he faced during his hockey career, was announced as one of the show’s new competitors on Friday.
The 31-year-old Nigerian-born Canadian athlete has been on the forefront of promoting equality in sport, as he helped form the Hockey Diversity Alliance in June with the goal of eliminating racism from the game.
Aliu posted a series of tweets last November detailing the racial abuse he was a victim of during his time in the NHL, with specific examples regarding former Flames head coach Bill Peters. He also established a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) youth hockey team in Toronto earlier this month.
He is being paired with Vanessa James, a Black figure skater who is returning to the show for another season. James was the 2019 European Champion in pairs and has represented France at the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Fellow Black hockey player Anthony Stewart will also be competing on the new season alongside figure skater Violetta Afanasieva. Stewart is a former first-round NHL pick who played for the Panthers, Thrashers and Hurricanes.
The other pairings for Season 6 are Jessica Campbell with Asher Hill, Jennifer Botterill with Eric Radford, Meagan Duhamel with Wojtek Wolski, Carlotta Edwards with Kris Versteeg, Kaitlyn Weaver with Bryan Bickell, and Meghan Agosta with Andrew Poje.
Hockey payer Natalie Spooner will serve as one of the judges. The Scarborough, Ont., native participated as a competitor last season where she finished as the runner-up behind fellow hockey player Sheldon Kennedy.
Black professional skater Elladj Baldé and Olympic gold medallist Scott Moir will serve as the other two judges. Ron MacLean is returning as host, and four-time World champion Kurt Browning is stepping into a new role as Elite Battle Expert.
Charities promoting diversity
Some of the charities supported by the pairs share an aim to make youth sports more diverse and accessible to everyone, regardless of race or background.
These selected charities include the Black Legal Action Centre in Ontario, Opokaa’sin Early Intervention Society in Alberta, and The Time to Dream Foundation. The season’s winner will have $100K donated to a charity of their choice.
The seven-episode season kicks off on Oct. 15 on CBC and CBC Gem before wrapping up on Nov. 26, with a virtual audience taking the place of general admissions due to the pandemic.
Fans from all across Canada can apply to become a member of the virtual audience, allowing them to join the action from home and be viewed on video screens in the arena through a virtual video conference.