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Diversity and inclusion

Karl Subban: 30 years of unlocking potential

February 18, 2022

Maria and Karl Subban, proud parents standing before P.K. Subban's banner at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee

"What are you good at?" For Karl Subban, that's an essential question for kids who are finding their talent and starting to fulfil their potential.

Subban is a father, a coach, an educator, an author and a motivational speaker. While each of those identities might seem like a different chapter in one person's life, Subban sees them as branches on tree that represents his journey.

Finding community

Subban came to Canada as an 11-year-old in the 1970s. His father, a diesel mechanic, had a job waiting at the Falconbridge mine in Sudbury. Subban remembers that the Canadian Shield didn't look anything like Jamaica, the kids on the street didn't look like him, and some neighbours spoke French, something the Subbans hadn't expected. But he also clearly remembers the support he received from his parents, and the support they in turn received from the community.

Subban found his own community through street hockey, and his parents found theirs with other Black families in town and families from the mine. "Every community has a community centre. And our home was a community centre." Those early relationships eased the family's transition to a radically new environment.

Learning through sport

Sports played a big part in his life, helping him fit in on Peter Street and providing an early answer to the question he asks kids now. "Sports have worked to define me and help me to reach my potential, along with education." He credits that self awareness for giving him the drive to push his own limits. Looking back, he knows sports were more than just competitive play. They taught him about perseverance, delayed gratification and how to win and lose—all important lessons for later in life.

Subban excelled at basketball, which led to a scholarship at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. During his time there as a youth basketball coach, Subban discovered his passion for working with kids. He understood that regardless of their talent level, his job was to bring out the greatness in each of them. "We're not great at everything right away, but over time we can be great at something."

Becoming a leader

Subban set his sights on a degree in education. After he graduated, he headed to Toronto, where he landed a job as the basketball coach at George Brown College. Following some part-time teaching, Subban got on full time with the City of York Board of Education. After 5 years, he was appointed vice-principal, then principal a couple of years after that, a position he held at several schools over 20 years.

Karl Subban with his son Malcom

When Subban compares his impact as a teacher versus a principal, he cites leadership as the determining factor. "There are many leaders, but the main one is the principal." Teachers influence 25 kids in a classroom, but the principal sets the tone and the culture. Despite the role and his previous coaching experience, Subban hadn't always thought of himself as a leader. He says it was a skill he developed personally and professionally. It was his job to help young people believe in their potential and fulfil it. Learning and growing in that job opened the door for Subban to make a bigger difference, something he relished. "You can have your theory, but you have to make it actionable."

Potential is something Subban believes in strongly. That's why he's spent over 30 years coaching and mentoring youth. To him, potential can only be actualized when a young person has an identifiable goal, a belief in themselves, and the dedication to act. "I encourage educators and parents to see young people through the lens I call their potential." In Subban's experience, kids need to feel seen.

Personalizing youth development

When it came to raising and encouraging his own kids as young athletes, Subban says he adopted the approach his parents had taken with him: encourage, love, support and sacrifice, but mostly stay out of the way. It seems to have worked, as one daughter excelled in visual arts and the other played university basketball, both on their way to becoming educators themselves, and his 3 sons all made it to the NHL.

To help kids find their talent and tap into their potential, Subban says we need to be intentional about creating inclusive spaces where kids can flourish. Not everyone learns the same way, so personalizing education can foster engagement. And the educational and business sectors can do more by working together: co-ops can open up new career possibilities, volunteerism can reveal completely different social experiences and apprenticeships can provide useful skills. "I think we're seeing it now, whether it's through the government or industry stepping up to give kids a chance. Without that, some of them will never have a chance to make it in life."

Subban knows there's no shortage of potential in Canada today. But we need to be deliberate when it comes to hiring, promoting equity, diversity and inclusion, and creating a diverse environment where everyone feels welcome. "Everyone wants to see a better community."

Subban was one of 6 panelists during Our Youth, Our Future: Taking the First Step Together,a Desjardins-sponsored dialogue as part of Black History Month. The panel is open to the public and takes place February 22, from 1:00 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.