Canada’s sport system is in the midst of a crisis and the problems need to be confronted, federal Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge says, after calling a high-level meeting in Ottawa to discuss the growing number of complaints from athletes about abuse and maltreatment.
“Since I was appointed close to six months ago, there are at least eight cases that were brought to my attention about maltreatment, abuse, sexual abuse, misuse of funds,” Ms. St-Onge said Thursday.
“I believe that we are in the middle of a crisis, and I decided that it was time to bring everyone to the same table so that we can have an open and robust conversation about the crisis that we are in.”
The minister held a meeting Thursday with some of Canada’s top sport officials. In an interview with The Globe and Mail after that meeting, she outlined the steps the government wants to take. Among them, Ottawa is preparing to revisit the funding structure for all of Canada’s sports organizations, and through that she intends to discuss placing more requirements on the standards each sport will have to meet in order to receive funds.
The meeting included the heads of the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic Committees, executives at four national sport organizations, and several representatives of athletes groups.
In response to calls from athletes, Ms. St-Onge also said a new independent office being set up to investigate allegations of abuse and maltreatment in sport will be made available to them at the provincial and territorial levels of sport – not only at the national level.
Athletes in several sports have spoken up in recent months about allegations of mistreatment and abuse within their ranks.
A Globe investigation in December detailed how Canada’s top synchronized swimmers were pushed into dangerous eating disorders by coaches who used questionable sport science as a justification, which left some of them in hospital and others with lifelong health consequences. Several of the swimmers said they feared retribution if they complained, and those who did raise alarms said their concerns weren’t properly investigated.
In March, bobsleigh and skeleton athletes issued a public letter complaining about safety, transparency and governance practices within Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton, including allegations of “abuse, harassment and misconduct.” And this week, dozens of Canadian gymnasts issued an open letter saying problems with sexual, physical and emotional abuse had not been dealt with in their sport.
“Basically, all those stories that are coming out mean that we have a collective problem that we need to deal with and a problem that deserves also a collective response,” Ms. St-Onge said.
Ms. St-Onge told The Globe this week that she would look at ways to increase scrutiny of Canada’s National Sport Organizations (NSOs), given the growing number of allegations that are coming out. There are more than 60 of these sports organizations operating across the country, and though they are independent of government, they do receive federal funding from Sport Canada and the government can pull that support if it doesn’t agree with how they operate.
In January, Ms. St-Onge said she would make the new independent complaints and investigation system mandatory for NSOs, removing the previous system where these organizations could opt out of the process and use their own investigators to handle cases, if they chose.
The Sport Dispute Resolution Centre (SDRCC) has been selected to operate the new office, which will replace a previous system where national sport organizations were able to hire their own companies to handle complaints of misconduct, which the athletes said created a system they did not trust.
She said the number and seriousness of complaints that have arisen since she was named minister last fall dictated the need to bring all parties in Canadian sport together to discuss how to confront abuse and maltreatment as a group.
“We’re now all focused on the next steps,” Ms. St-Onge said. “We need to make sure that sport is safe at all levels – whether it is community, amateur or national level.”
She said fixing the problem will take a collective response from all groups and organizations involved.
“There needs to be a culture shift in the whole system,” Ms. St-Onge said. ”Because what we’re hearing right now from the athletes that are coming forward with their stories is that, first of all, they don’t feel heard and, second of all, they don’t feel well supported. And they don’t feel like we’ve responded appropriately so far to what they are telling us. So we need to do better.”
The meeting included David Shoemaker, chief executive officer of the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC); Karen O’Neill, CEO of the Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC); and Anne Merklinger, CEO of Own the Podium, a federal funding body for Olympic programs.
Several people represented athletes at the meeting, including Erin Willson, president of AthletesCAN, which represents Canada’s national teams; Rosie MacLennan, chair of the COC Athletes’ Commission; and Tony Walby, chair of the CPC Athletes’ Council. Marie-Claude Asselin, CEO of SDRCC, was also part of the meeting.
There were also representatives from four national sport organizations, including Martin Goulet, executive director of Water Polo Canada; Jasmine Northcott, CEO of Water Ski and Wakeboard Canada, and a former executive director of AthletesCAN; Debra Armstrong, CEO of Skate Canada; and Katherine Henderson, CEO of Curling Canada.
Lorraine Lafrenière, CEO of the Coaching Association of Canada, was also in attendance, as well as Debra Gassewitz, president of the Sport Information Resource Centre.
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