Help or Hurt? Understanding Canada’s Bill S209 and Its Impact on MMA

October 21, 2013


By Germaine Watkins – Thompson Rivers University 2L JD Student

Combative sports are growing in popularity in Canada. Pro mixed martial arts (MMA) has found a large audience in Canada. As of April 2012, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s (UFC) four highest grossing box office events were on Canadian soil. However, up until June of this year MMA was illegal under section 83 of the criminal code. In spite of this, several provinces hosted MMA events turning a blind eye to the illegality of these events. Participants, promoters, organizers and spectators who attended these MMA events were subject to conviction under this section.

Recognizing this reality and in light of the growing popularity of MMA in Canada, the government passed Bill S 209 amending the Criminal Code.

There are several pros and cons to Bill S 209.

In a positive light, the new Code has created further clarity towards understanding what activities are considered prize fighting. The new provision expands the list of exceptions to the offense to include combative sports that fall under IOC designation. These features assist in drawing the line between sports and an illegal street fight.

On the negative side, Bill S 209 puts MMA in no man’s land in many provinces. Bill S 209 went to royal assent on June 19, 2013. In its wake, decision making power concerning the future of MMA has shifted to the provinces. Under the new law, MMA is excepted from criminal sanction, “where permission is granted by an athletic board, commission or similar body established under provincial sport legislation.” While this provision creates a pathway for the future legality of MMA, at present the provision has actually undermined the sport by removing the validity commissions previously set up under the authority of municipalities.

In Moncton, New Brunswick, the Moncton Boxing and Wrestling Commission has been the key body sanctioning MMA.The commission receives its authority from Moncton city by-laws. The by-laws exhaustivelyset out regulations governing various aspects of the sport from registration of fighters to fee schedules for officials.Although this organization has functioned effectively for several years, at the time of writing the Commission had suspended its activities.In the absence of New Brunswick legislation the Commission is without the proper authority to operate.

Earlier this year a similar situation arose in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. The municipality, under the Cities Act, sought to form the Central Combative Sports Commission for the sanctioning of MMA.However, before the Commission was finalized the Province stepped in and declared that such a move was in breach of the proposed amendments of the Criminal Code as the body lacked the appropriate authorization from the Province.

Bill S 209 has not only put MMA on hold in various areas, it has inadvertently stifled the development of the sport by criminalizing certain martial arts used in MMA. Under the new Criminal Code pro muay thai and pro kick boxing are not given the same exemption as MMA. This is particularly interesting as the techniques used in these sports make up a large part of MMA. A pro MMA fighter can execute a specific kick combination in an MMA fight, but performing the same moves in a pro kick boxing match is a criminal act.

Many MMA fighters improve on fundamental skills by participating in top caliber environment provided by pro kickboxing and pro muay thai matches.These matches provide the opportunities for fighters to develop specific skill sets found in MMA on a high level. As well, the growth of MMA has been partially fueled by the development of these sports. Fighters will often come to MMA leagues after a career in kickboxing or muay thai. By failing to give exemption to these sports Bill S 209 may turn out to stunt the growth, if not change the face of MMA.

While Bill S 209 may have been passed with the intention of championing mixed martial arts in Canada, to date it has had mixed results. With the revised Code centralizing decision making authority to the provinces rather than at a local level, it has had the unintended effect of creating a vacuum to the extent that provinces have yet to legislate athletic boards or commissions to oversee MMA. The future of MMA in Canada remains to be seen as provinces begin to regulate the sport and kinks of the new legislation are worked out.

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