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Team Canada at the opening ceremonies during the Tokyo Olympics in Tokyo, Japan on July 23, 2021.The Canadian Press

Canada has a new sport integrity commissioner whose job will be to oversee independent investigations into allegations of abuse and maltreatment in sport at a time when athletes are increasingly speaking out.

Sarah-Eve Pelletier, a lawyer and former synchronized swimmer on the Canadian national team, was named to the role on Tuesday, and will head a newly formed office designed to receive complaints, and recommend punishment if required.

The position, the first of its kind, 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 wrongdoing in sport.

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In recent months, athletes from several different disciplines have stepped forward with allegations of physical, sexual and psychological abuse. They have also called for change in the Canadian sport system, which previously lacked a process for fully independent investigations into maltreatment.

“I’m truly honoured to be taking on this role at such a pivotal time,” Ms. Pelletier said in a statement after the announcement was made. “There is simply no place in sport for maltreatment of any kind. Through concerted efforts on all fronts … we can make sport a safe and welcoming place for everyone involved.”

Ms. Pelletier has also served in the past as deputy general counsel and director of business affairs for the Canadian Olympic Committee. But it is her role as a former synchronized swimmer and national-team member that athletes said Tuesday was encouraging.

A Globe and Mail investigation in December detailed how several Canadian synchronized swimmers said coaches in the system used questionable sports science to push athletes into dangerous eating disorders over the past decade, leaving some of them in hospital or with lifelong health consequences. Some athletes said their complaints of maltreatment were never addressed, while others said they were scared to stand up for themselves, fearing they would be reprimanded or kicked off the team.

The synchronized swimming case came to exemplify the lack of an independent investigation mechanism in Canada, several athletes told The Globe, since sports organizations could appoint their own investigators to look into complaints within their ranks.

Even after the government announced the new SDRCC process last summer, sport organizations could opt out and continue to oversee their own investigations, if they chose.

However, in January, Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge said she would make the new independent complaints office mandatory for all sport organizations at the national level in response to the synchronized swimming case. Last week, the minister said she would also make it available to provincial and club levels to investigate abuse and maltreatment allegations.

Erin Willson, a former Olympic synchronized swimmer, was told by team officials to lose unhealthy amounts of weight or face losing her spot on the team. She ended up with a serious eating disorder. Ms. Willson viewed Ms. Pelletier’s appointment as a step in the right direction, given her background in sports.

Though Ms. Pelletier’s time on the national team preceded her own, Ms. Willson said the new commissioner at least understands the power imbalance that exists between athletes and their coaches. During her time on the team, Ms. Willson and other swimmers were required to sign contracts that could force them to pay back tens of thousands of dollars in funding if they left the team, leaving them little ability to walk away from the alleged abuse.

“I think it’s someone who definitely understands the position of the athlete, having been there themselves,” Ms. Willson said about Ms. Pelletier’s appointment.

Prior to the new office being set up, athletes told The Globe they did not trust the system national sport organizations used to investigate complaints because it was not independent, since the investigators were paid by the organizations.

“I think it hopefully will give athletes a little bit more trust,” Ms. Willson said of the new integrity office.

In addition to the problems inside synchronized swimming, athletes in bobsled and skeleton and gymnastics have issued open letters in the past month alleging abuse and mistreatment within their programs. The bobsleigh and skeleton athletes demanded top officials resign, while gymnastics athletes are seeking an independent investigation into what they said was a toxic culture and poorly designed policies that enable abuse.

Ms. St-Onge, who was appointed Minister of Sport less than six months ago, said last week that she had been told of allegations of maltreatment or abuse in at least eight national sport organizations. The Globe has since learned that those include: synchronized swimming, bobsled and skeleton, gymnastics, rowing, wrestling, curling, athletics and rugby.

She added that the sport system in Canada was in a moment of crisis that needs to be confronted, with athletes from so many sports speaking out.

“This is a critical step in moving toward our common goal of achieving a Canadian sport system free of harassment, abuse, discrimination or maltreatment,” Ms. St-Onge said in a statement on Tuesday. “We must build an approach that works for and with athletes.”

Marie-Claude Asselin, CEO of the SDRCC, said the new office will be independent of all national sport organizations. Complaints about abuse or maltreatment will be investigated and, if violations are found, penalties or further action will be sought.

Canada Artistic Swimming, the governing body for synchronized swimming, issued a statement Tuesday saying it supported Ms. Pelletier’s appointment.

The new commissioner brings “a wealth of experience to this role, with her extensive background in international sport law and, as a former high-performance athlete in artistic swimming, she thoroughly understands the sport context,” said Jackie Buckingham, CEO of Canada Artistic Swimming.

The office will begin operating some time this spring, and could be hit with a deluge of complaints. Ms. St-Onge said in an interview that she expects there will be a backlog of cases for the SDRCC’s integrity office to wade through at first.

“I’m not saying that from Day 1 everything is going to be dealt with and that everything is going to run perfectly,” Ms. St-Onge said.

“If we look at the United States where there is something [similar] that was implemented, I think the first three years they looked at past cases, so we know that there’s a backlog, that there are going to be complaints from the past that are going to come up,” she said.

“But what is important is that the SDRCC, and all organizations and athletes, they work with the SDRCC to make this work. … We cannot fail this.”

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