The federal government is planning more scrutiny of Canada’s National Sport Organizations, amid a growing number of allegations being made by athletes about abuse and maltreatment within their ranks.
Specifics of the changes have not been finalized, but Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge said in a statement Monday that her office will be taking a closer look at how the governing bodies of more than 60 sports in Canada operate.
“We are looking to strengthen how we monitor the responsibilities of organizations to keep their athletes safe, and we will hold organizations accountable if they fall short of expectations,” Ms. St-Onge said.
She was responding to an open letter sent by 71 current and former gymnastics athletes to Sport Canada, the federal body that funds the country’s various sport organizations. In that letter, gymnasts said cases of sexual, psychological and physical abuse were not being properly addressed within the sport.
The group called for an independent investigation into what it alleges is a toxic culture at Gymnastics Canada, and it wants the results of that probe, and any recommendations that stem from it, made public.
It is the third time in recent months that athletes within a particular sport have raised alarms about the national governing body that oversees them.
In December, a Globe and Mail investigation detailed how several of Canada’s top synchronized swimmers were driven to dangerous eating disorders by coaches who used questionable sports science as a rationale for abuse. The swimmers, including some who have been left with long-term health consequences, said their concerns were disregarded by Canada Artistic Swimming, and that many of them feared retribution for speaking up.
And this month, bobsleigh and skeleton athletes issued a public letter complaining about safety, transparency and governance practices within Bobsleigh Skeleton Canada, including allegations of “abuse, harassment and misconduct.”
As athletes from different sports speak out about what they feel is misconduct within the ranks of the National Sport Organizations that govern them, the various situations are quickly becoming a focal point for Ms. St-Onge in her first year on the job.
“Let me be clear,” Ms. St-Onge said in response Monday. “There is no place for harassment, abuse, discrimination or maltreatment in sports. I want to recognize the courage of the athletes who have come forward.”
Though National Sport Organizations are independent from government, they receive federal funding and Ottawa can pull that support if it is unhappy with how they operate.
“Today’s open letter is a reminder that we must take action to create a cultural shift in sport at all levels. All athletes have the right to practise their sport in a healthy, safe, ethical and respectful environment,” Ms. St-Onge said.
The gymnasts’ letter did not contain specific allegations of wrongdoing, but said problems have been persistent.
“For almost a decade, the fear of retribution has prevented us and scores of other athletes from speaking out. However we can no longer sit in silence. We are coming forward with our experiences of abuse, neglect and discrimination in the hopes of forcing change,” the letter said.
Gymnastics Canada chief executive Ian Moss declined comment Monday, but said the organization would be issuing a statement on Tuesday.
Many of the concerns raised by athletes involve fears that if they make allegations of abuse or maltreatment, those complaints won’t be investigated fairly by the sport’s governing body. Synchronized swimmers told The Globe they distrusted a system where the National Sport Organization could appoint its own investigators, who the organization was also paying. Athletes said this results in a system stacked against them.
In response to The Globe’s investigation into synchronized swimming, Ms. St-Onge said in January she would make it mandatory for all National Sport Organizations to sign on to a new independent complaints office that is being set up this year, run by the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada (SDRCC). Previously, sport organizations had the ability to opt out of this new process and appoint their own investigators on complaints.
“It is our intention to make use of this mechanism mandatory for all federally funded National Sport Organizations. The mechanism will be up and running by the end of spring,” Ms. St-Onge said on Monday.
Kim Shore, a former athlete who sat on the board of Gymnastics Canada from 2018 to 2021 and served as the chair of its Safe Sport committee before resigning in frustration, told The Globe that allegations of abuse within the organization were not treated with urgency, nor did some athletes feel they would be treated fairly if they complained.
In addition to the changes involving the SDRCC at the national level, Ms. Shore said Ottawa and the provincial governments must find a way to ensure athletes at lower levels of sport, such as provincial and grassroots club levels, can raise concerns and be protected. The problems mentioned by the gymnasts span all levels of the sport, said Ms. Shore, who also signed the letter.
The gymnasts said 71 athletes, including 10 Olympians, signed the letter before it was sent to Sport Canada. However, more have been added since then, including athletes and some coaches, bringing the total number to more than 100. Names of those who signed aren’t being released because some fear punishment while others don’t want to make their abuse allegations public, the group said.
Rose Cossar, who competed at the 2012 London Olympics, also added her name to the letter. She said the gymnasts saw athletes in synchronized swimming, bobsleigh and skeleton speaking out and decided the time was right to bring their own concerns forward.
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