Graduating with a degree in finance in 2014, Colley-Leger chose to walk away from playing basketball to focus on her family and community. And now Colley-Leger is increasingly finding her voice as a community advocate.
Throughout her basketball career, Colley-Leger never forgot going door to door in her community of East Preston to fundraise to travel to tournaments. As a player, she was acutely aware of the pride African Nova Scotians took in her, and of her responsibility to represent her community positively.
And now after her playing career, working as the African Nova Scotia Sexual Violence Community Engagement Coordinator and serving as the treasurer for the East Preston Ratepayers Association, that same sense of service to community motivates her as she organizes the younger generation in the Prestons to fight for justice.
I met Justine Colley-Leger outside the Black Cultural Centre on Thursday during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit to Cherrybrook. Standing in the freezing cold and the snow, she made a powerful speech asserting the rights and presence of African Nova Scotians in the Prestons. I spoke to Colley-Leger about why she made the choice to stop playing basketball, how she has emerged as a strong political voice in her community, and her hopes for the future of her community.
I want to go back to your basketball career. Can you give me some of those highlights? You were the most successful player in women’s university basketball history.
Yes, I currently hold the record for most points scored in — well, at the time it was called Canadian Inter-University Sports, I think it’s called U Sports now — and that was over a five-year career. Every division or every conference has their own set amount of games and they keep their own statistics, because different teams play a different amount of games. But overall, I’ve scored the most points of anyone, and I did that in, like, the second-last game of the season. So it happened quite quickly. I wasn’t chasing it.
I’ve always been known to score. But, I think as you mature and grow not just on the basketball court but also mentally, you start to see things a little bit differently. I guess that’s how I got to where I am now, which we’ll get to. But the game just seemed a lot easier to me as I got to my fifth year. And maybe it was because the pressure to do something after wasn’t there any more.
I know really early in the second term of my final season, it became more like a job rather than something I wanted to do. And so once it was no longer my priority, or it wasn’t the top on my list in terms of priority, it made me start to realize that maybe that’s not the life I want to live for the next 10 years if I choose to go play professionally.
So what made you decide to leave? Because I imagine a lot of people had your life mapped out for you; what made you realize it wasn’t something you wanted to do?
When I was in high school, or maybe it was my first or second year of university when I was playing with the senior women’s national team, we were talking about how at the 2008 Olympics, the Canadian women’s basketball team was the youngest team there, and the average age was I think about 24 or 25. What we would consider here in Canada to be relatively older to do sport, but everywhere else around the world, women are playing into their 30s, and some might get to 40.
And for me, as a woman, knowing that I might want to have a family of my own, it started to become like an ultimatum. I can choose to pursue this dream, or I choose to follow my other dream of being a mother and having a family and living that life as well. And for me, I didn’t see it working that I could do both. I know a lot of people do, I just didn’t want to do either one of them half way.
I wanted to be fully committed, whether that was pursuing the dream and then going to Europe and then the WNBA, and Team Canada, and the Olympics, all those fun things. I felt like it was doing that at my 100 per cent all, or being a mother and doing that at my 100 per cent, where I didn’t have to worry so much about all those other things.
And then I fell in love. As cheesy and as corny as that sounds, my husband and I started dating in my second-last year and by January of my final season, I knew that I’d rather start a family with him than go to Europe and be distant from my family and friends, and my community.
Was it a struggle? Because people project all kinds of expectations on other people, especially in the Black community, where there’s this idea that we carry the torch for everybody. So, it seems to me it must have taken a certain amount of courage to step away.
I guess I would say that I’m the type of individual where I don’t really care what people think. I mean, obviously people’s words affect me like everyone else. I am human. but I never allowed people to feel as if they had power over my future.
And by doing that I knew that, whatever I choose I live with it regardless of it’s good or bad, and I’ll take it as it comes. And that has always been my mentality. Whenever people would address it or talk about it, I would just say, it’s what I want to do, and as long as you’re confident in your decisions, no one can really say anything to you.
Were you always political? Or was that something that developed once you left sports?
I would say that during my career I was always politically correct. I knew the image that came from my community in the media’s eye and in the world’s eye, and I did not want to fall within a certain stereotype of being what everyone believes Black people are. And so I would say I was always very cautious with what I would say in the media not to offend anyone.
But the political stuff didn’t really hit home until there were issues in East Preston, because I live here now. My husband and I built a house here, and there were things that were happening around me that weren’t going to benefit us, and I couldn’t just stand around and let them happen.