Canada’s newly appointed Sport Integrity Commissioner believes the country’s sport system is at a crucial point as athletes from multiple disciplines speak out about abuse, maltreatment and culture problems within their ranks.
“Right now is a pivotal moment,” Sarah-Eve Pelletier said in an interview Wednesday. A lawyer and former synchronized swimmer, Ms. Pelletier was named Canada’s first Sport Integrity Commissioner last month.
In the past six months, athletes in a variety of sports, from synchronized swimming, gymnastics and boxing to bobsled and skeleton, have brought forward allegations against coaches and other officials, ranging from physical and psychological mistreatment to sexual abuse.
The athletes, some of them minors when the alleged abuse occurred, said they were often dissuaded from making complaints or, if they did, those investigations were handled internally by their sport organizations and the problems weren’t properly addressed.
Ms. Pelletier’s role was created by the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada (SDRCC), which was chosen by the federal government to design a system for independently investigating alleged cases of abuse and harassment in sport. Her office begins operations on June 20.
“As heartbreaking as it is to hear stories of maltreatment, there is a desire from our office, and I sense there is a desire from the community, to help this move along and to get to a place where, in the future, we never have to talk about it again, because it’s no longer an issue in sport,” Ms. Pelletier said.
She expects a backlog of cases when she begins, given that Canada has lacked a fully independent office where allegations of abuse in sport could be investigated, which could bring forward new complaints.
In the past, Canada’s more than 60 national sport organizations could appoint their own investigators to examine cases. Athletes told The Globe and Mail last year they did not trust this system, which they felt allowed sports organizations to effectively investigate themselves.
A similar office created a few years ago in the United States – the U.S. Center for Safe Sport – also saw a high workload when it began operating and Ms. Pelletier suspects it will be similar in Canada.
“Quite honestly one of my biggest worries when we take on this role is that we will never get the results soon enough for the people who have been waiting for them. So on one hand there is a sense of urgency and we want to be opening our operations as quickly as we can … and addressing matters as urgently as we can,” she said.
Last month, Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge said cases of sexual abuse, maltreatment and misuse of funding had been brought to her attention in eight different sports since she was appointed last fall.
On Wednesday, Ms. St-Onge said in an interview that the problems signal a culture change is needed, “so we can make sure that everybody understands loudly and clearly the message that things need to change.”
A group of Canadian gymnasts filed a proposed class-action lawsuit in B.C.’s Supreme Court last week, alleging years of sexual, physical and psychological abuse that was never properly handled by the sport’s national governing body and six provincial organizations. The allegations included coaches forcing young gymnasts to train while injured, sexual touching by coaches, and children who were counselled into eating disorders and how to hide them from their parents.
None of the allegations have been proven in court. Responding to the lawsuit, Gymnastics Canada said conduct described in the class action was unacceptable and that it takes such claims seriously.
It was the second such lawsuit in the past year, after a group of synchronized swimmers launched a similar proposed class action in 2021, alleging coaches physically and mentally abused them and used questionable sport science to push them into dangerous eating disorders. Some ended up in hospital, while others have been left with serious lifelong health consequences. None of the allegations have been proven and that case is also awaiting certification.
“I think everybody has been scandalized by the stories that we’ve heard,” Ms. St-Onge said. “It’s going to take a little bit of time to make all the changes we need, but I know that we’re going in the right direction, that everybody is at the table, they are motivated, and the voices that everyone is listening to are the athletes.”
Athletes in gymnastics, boxing and bobsled and skeleton have separately issued open letters this year calling for independent investigations into systemic problems in their sport, saying that concerns about abuse and maltreatment extend beyond individual cases to the system that oversees them. The International Boxing Association has launched a probe into problems at Boxing Canada, but the other sports have not been granted similar investigations.
Ms. St-Onge said the new Sport Integrity office will be mandatory for all national sport organizations and participation will be linked to the funding they get from Ottawa. In addition to examining individual abuse complaints, it will also be given the power to conduct assessments of culture within a particular sport, to see if systemic changes are needed.
The office was allotted $16-million over the next three years in the recent federal budget. It is unclear whether that figure will be enough to support its operations and case load.
“We’re going to see how it goes,” Ms. St-Onge said. “We feel that the resources are there to implement this system, and make sure that all the services that the athletes need are there.”
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