Written By: Brock Smith
It would have been perfectly understandable if Gordon Stringer just grieved.
After his 17-year-old daughter, Rowan, died following a series of concussions while playing rugby in 2013, it would have been perfectly reasonable for Gordon and his wife, Kathleen, to remove themselves from the public spotlight.
To take time to recover from the incomparable pain that comes with losing a child.
Five years ago, the Stringers had a decision to make. They could either mourn the loss of their daughter in relative solitude – a choice that would have certainly been their prerogative – or share Rowan’s story, in the hope that it could help prevent another such tragedy.
The Stringers ultimately chose to tell Rowan’s story, and in doing so, set the wheels in motion for the creation of Bill 193 in Ontario: Rowan’s Law.
When looking back, this fork in the road – one that arrived during such a raw, heart-rending period and the Stringers’ choice to go down the path of awareness, prevention, and legacy – will prove to be a watershed moment for ensuring the safety of millions of amateur athletes in Canada.
From the moment the Stringers decided they would pour themselves into sharing Rowan’s story, it took just three years before the first piece of legislation bearing Rowan’s name was passed in her home province.
To non-politicos, three years may seem like a lengthy period of time, but ask anyone in the world of lawmaking, and three years is a flash in the pan. Blink and you’ll miss it.
The law becomes even more impressive when you consider the fact that it meant Ontario became the first jurisdiction in Canada to address concussions through legislation when it passed the Rowan’s Law Advisory Committee Act, 2016 on June 9, 2016.
The private member’s bill, introduced by Ottawa-area MPP Lisa MacLeod (with cross-partisan support), established a committee to study implementing the recommendations of a coroner’s inquest into Rowan’s death.
The 14-person Rowan’s Law Advisory Committee had an impressive membership list, including medical experts, researchers, sport leaders that featured the likes of double-gold Olympic trampoline gymnast Rosie MacLennan and recent Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Eric Lindros, along with Gord Stringer himself.
The Act required the committee to provide advice to the government with respect to head injury prevention and treatment.
The committee completed their mandated work this past September, submitting a report that contained 21 recommended actions directed to all organized amateur sports, both school-based and non-school-based, in Ontario. The recommendations were grouped into five themes: surveillance, prevention, detection, management and awareness.
That report then provided the foundations of Bill 193, Rowan’s Law (Concussion Safety), 2017, which passed first reading on December 14, 2017.
Rowan’s Law includes protocols for the removal and return to sport of young athletes suspected to have sustained a concussion, which might have saved the life of Rowan Stringer, as well as introduces a concussion code of conduct that would set out rules of behaviour to minimize concussions while playing sport.
In honour of Rowan, the bill would also see the last Wednesday each September established as “Rowan’s Law Day” as one of many awareness provisions meant to encourage safe play and self-reporting of symptoms.
Paul Hunter, Rugby Canada’s Manager of National Coach Development, was one of three committee members that Gord Stringer knew prior to the group being formed in 2016. Hunter had worked closely with Stringer, MPP MacLeod, and a small coterie of other dedicated individuals for several months prior to the passing of the initial Rowan’s Law Advisory Committee Act.
“Gord and Kathleen are two absolutely incredible individuals, and they are so inspiring to be around,” said Hunter, reflecting upon his years of working alongside the Stringers. “For me, I’ve been quite fortunate to learn from them.”
“How they do what they do, day after day… I have no idea. They have to live and talk about the unfortunate incident as part of their commitment to sharing Rowan’s story, which shows just how strong they are. They’re dedicated to making sure this preventable injury does not happen to anyone else, and they’re doing it for the absolute right reasons.”
Hunter has noticed that while Stringer may not be the most verbose of individuals, he commands respect with his unwavering resolve and an actions-speak-louder-than-words approach to problem solving.
“Gord may not speak a lot, but when he does talk, everyone listens,” he adds. “He takes on every single challenge. He’s a solution-based guy. He’s driven this behind the scenes with so many different partnerships and organizations that if something comes up in front of him, it’s not a barrier. It’s a challenge, and he’s going to overcome it.”
By all accounts, Stringer has been tireless in his work with furthering Rowan’s Law and the concussion prevention and awareness movement.
“He’ll answer every call. He’ll respond to every message and email. There is nothing he won’t do for Rowan’s Law, or any other project that may help ensure a safer landscape,” says Hunter. “His dedication is unrivalled.”
Stringer’s willingness to provide a trusted, measured voice on the issue of concussion prevention has seen his input spill over into other initiatives; he’s also worked with Rugby Canada on designing the framework of their player welfare initiatives, notably providing feedback for the national body’s PlaySmart program.
“One of the biggest ways Gord has impacted me was to teach me to be bold in what I do,” says Hunter. “Gord’s mantra, all the time, is to ‘be bold.’ Any time the committee got into any discussions, and we were leaning towards shying away from something, Gord brought us back every time, saying we’ve got to be bold. Don’t just do the norm. Don’t accept anything less than what we need to do, and the right thing to do.”
“For the sake of player safety, we’ve got to be bold. We’ve got to. And Gord’s drive – his mantra – can be found all throughout our report, and in Rowan’s Law.”
Since the Rowan’s Law Advisory Committee submitted their report last September, Hunter notes that the biggest development surrounding the proposed legislation, in his eyes, has been the noticeable jump in public awareness.
“When I go across the country, and I say ‘Rowan’s Law,’ people know exactly what I’m talking about,” he says. “They associate it right away with concussion prevention, and that wasn’t happening before. People are talking about concussions now, people are reporting concussions in greater numbers, and this is part of Rowan’s legacy.”
Many individuals – Hunter included – have pointed out that this type of legislation is long overdue in Canada, especially when juxtaposing provincial or federal law to those found in other nations.
“If you look at the United States, all 50 states already have a concussion law,” he adds. “So when you compare that to Canada – specifically, the fact that no province or territory has a concussion law – it shows how far behind we are. It will be a step in the right direction to get a law created, as it gives us validation.”
Stats surrounding youth concussions in Ontario certainly provide context as to why brain injury awareness is becoming more of a household topic of conversation.
As the report notes, 22 percent of the province’s students have reported being knocked out or admitted to hospital due to a head injury in their lifetime. In Canada, among children and youth who visit an emergency department for a sports-related head injury, 39 percent were diagnosed with concussions, while a further 24 percent were possible concussions.
Simply put, brain injuries are all too common, and it’s with this in mind that Stringer describes how important it is for Rowan’s Law to become instantly recognizable, especially outside of rugby circles.
“When we set out, it was very much all about rugby, understandably,” he says. “But we never looked at it as being an issue with rugby alone. Rowan died playing the game rugby, but what happened to her could have happened in any kind of sporting environment, or it didn’t even have to be a sporting environment. Sports make up less than half of concussions that people suffer. So, for us, this was never a rugby issue. It was a concussion issue, and it was a lack of education issue, it’s a lack of awareness issue, and it was a public health issue.”
“To see now that, finally, Rowan’s Law has broken through the rugby focus that was present at the beginning of this process, is gratifying. This is now widely recognized as a public health issue, as it should be.”
The Ontario legislature resumes sitting on February 20, signalling the first opportunity for the bill to progress through the necessary stages en route to becoming law.
Once Bill 193 is passed into law – and all signs point to it passing over the coming months – you won’t catch Stringer putting his up his feet, dusting off his hands, or resting on his laurels.
The fire inside Stringer burns strong, and it will continue to roar until concussion legislation is passed all across Canada.
“Once it becomes law in Ontario, the next step is the rest of Canada,” he says. “Ontario will set the bar, and the rest of Canada is going to have to meet or exceed that bar when it comes to what we’re doing here in Ontario.”
Over the past year, while the committee put together its report for the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport, it was also working behind the scenes to coordinate developments with counterparts in other provinces, as well as harmonization efforts with groups working at the federal level.
“People in Ontario shouldn’t have a better system than anybody else in the country,” adds Stringer. “Everybody should have education, awareness, and treatment options, from coast to coast to coast. We won’t stop until we’ve reached this point.”
He notes that many other provinces are taking a “wait-and-see” approach with Rowan’s Law, and that once it’s passed, it should only be a matter of time until other governments follow suit.
“I envision it being something like a domino effect, and sooner or later, all provinces will have a law like Ontario’s,” he speculates. “We’re involved with people that have representation across the country, so I think once Rowan’s Law gets passed in Ontario, others will follow suit, and we’ll be there to support, encourage, push… to do whatever needs to be to be done to make sure that it happens across Canada.”
“Creating legislation, Rowan’s Law, will help protect our youth and fulfill Rowan’s dream of helping children.”