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Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge says she is not sure how long it will take to fully implement changes that will close a loophole that allows national sport organizations to appoint their own investigators when it comes to complaints of athlete abuse.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge said she plans to close a loophole that allows national sport organizations to appoint their own investigators when it comes to complaints of athlete abuse within their own ranks.

The problem was detailed in a recent Globe and Mail investigation into alleged abuse at the national synchronized swimming program, where athletes say they were pushed into dangerous eating disorders by coaches using questionable science and arbitrary metrics, leaving some of those swimmers with lifelong problems.

However, when the athletes raised concerns within the program, they say their complaints were never addressed.

In July, the federal government announced a new system to probe allegations of abuse in sport, appointing the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada (SDRCC) to handle independent investigations. But in doing so, Ottawa left a critical loophole allowing more than 60 national sport organizations (NSOs) to opt out of the new process if they chose, and instead hire their own investigators to handle such cases. Athletes told The Globe this was a conflict of interest.

Ms. St-Onge said she is now committed to fixing this loophole, by ensuring all organizations sign on to the independent third-party SDRCC process.

“We’re looking at ways to make this new mechanism mandatory for all NSOs,” Ms. St-Onge said in an interview. “My goal is to put in place a system that the athletes will trust.”

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Ms. St-Onge said she is not sure how long it will take to fully implement the change. She is in the midst of meeting with athletes groups and national sport organizations to discuss next steps.

“It’s a process that needs to happen in the next few weeks and months. But I want to make it clear that this is my goal; I want to make it mandatory for all NSOs,” Ms. St-Onge said.

“I’m open to conversation; I’m not closed-minded. But I totally agree with the athletes that they need to trust the system.”

Several top Olympians, including freestyle skier Jennifer Heil, told The Globe they did not have confidence in a system that wasn’t mandatory, since it opens the door to conflicts of interest. An NSO that selects and pays its own investigators can also potentially influence the outcome.

Ms. St-Onge, who was named Sport Minister in October, could face pushback from sport organizations opposed to the idea. The government has been lobbied in the past by NSOs who have sought to maintain control over their own sports and how investigations take place within them. Though federally funded, the sport organizations are independent from government.

The SDRCC is set to begin operating in April. Dozens of NSOs are expected to join the new system, but it is unclear how many will hold out. When The Globe asked Canada Artistic Swimming (CAS), which governs the synchronized swimming program, if it will sign on to the new system, a spokesman for the program was non-committal.

When CAS named its own third-party investigator in late 2020 to probe complaints from athletes, the program announced last March that the investigation “did not see sufficient evidence” of a problem. About 50 synchronized swimmers are now part of a proposed class-action lawsuit against CAS, alleging abuse and maltreatment, including lifelong damage caused by severe eating disorders.

Ms. Heil, who wrote a letter to the government last year signed by several prominent Olympians – including freestyle skier Alex Bilodeau, hurdler Perdita Felicien, alpine skier Allison Forsyth, and cross-country skier Beckie Scott – said athletes at all levels of sport shouldn’t be forced to turn to the court system when they need help.

“Maybe not all NSOs are going to be part of it from the get-go. But eventually it’s my goal to make it mandatory.” Ms. St-Onge said. “I want to make sure that the athletes, no matter what we do, that they have a system that they can rely on, that they can come forward and that their cases are going to be dealt with in the most transparent and independent and professional manner.”

The government has been working on implementing better complaints mechanisms for athletes from the grassroots levels on up since 2018 when allegations of sexual abuse inside the U.S. gymnastics program led to a broader discussion of making sport safer around the world.

Ms. St-Onge, who inherited the file, said the new system must not only be trusted by athletes, but must make it clear that all forms of abuse will not be tolerated in sport, whether it is sexual abuse, physical abuse or other forms of improper treatment.

“Athletes need to know what is normal training, what is a safe environment and what is any kind of abuse or maltreatment or harassment,” Ms. St-Onge said.

Three researchers at the University of Toronto laid out options to fix the system in a recent letter to Ms. St-Onge, arguing that even though NSOs are independent from the government, Ottawa has more than just the ability to pull federal funding to get them to comply.

Gretchen Kerr, the dean of Kinesiology and Physical Education at the U of T who has spent her career researching abuse in sport, said the federal government has in the past required sport organizations to comply with rules regarding mandatory random doping tests, as well as new concussion protocols. Ms. Kerr said in an interview she doesn’t see why imposing tougher rules on how abuse investigations are conducted – in order to remove potential conflicts of interest – can’t be done the same way.

Shaunna Taylor, a clinical therapist in Kelowna, B.C., who treats athletes with eating disorders and has seen problems with how athletes are treated inside some national programs, said the need for a system to investigate allegations of abuse that isn’t rife with potential conflicts of interest is long overdue.

“There cannot be an argument that someone handpicked this [investigation] agency because they want to keep things in-house,” Dr. Taylor said.

“You have someone with fresh eyes, who doesn’t have ties, who is able to be that arm’s-length agency. … It would hopefully have a better chance of holding people to account if culture change needs to happen, because these are people who don’t have something to lose or gain from it.”

Ms. St-Onge said ensuring the system is both independent and mandatory is one of her biggest priorities, even if it takes time.

“I’m planning on using all the leadership that being Minister of Sport provides to me to have those conversations,” Ms. St-Onge said.

She acknowledged the athletes who spoke out about the problems. “I want to salute their courage and the fact that so many of them came forward,” she said. “Because it’s really because of them that we’re having these conversations today.”

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