Federal Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge introduced new measures Thursday to confront poor governance at Canada’s national sport organizations, including the creation of a compliance office that can penalize them for not meeting targets set out by the government.
The new compliance unit will operate from inside Sport Canada, the department responsible for funding the country’s 63 national sport organizations, known as NSOs. It will have the ability to pull federal funding from any organization that doesn’t meet a series of specific requirements, including standards for transparency, diversity and professional governance.
“At the federal level, our connection to the sport system is through the funding we provide to organizations,” Ms. St-Onge said. “We will use this as a lever for change.”
NSOs are independent organizations and some have conducted themselves with little accountability, refusing to publicly disclose their audited financials and business dealings, keeping allegations of abuse quiet and shirking basic governance practices – without fear that Ottawa would punish them or halt their federal funding.
Under the new system, NSOs will be required to publish all board meeting minutes; disclose financial statements publicly; include athletes on their board of directors; and meet new minimum standards for diversity and independence of directors.
At least 40 per cent of every board will now have to be made up of directors from outside the organization, in an effort to clamp down on conflicts of interest that have plagued prominent NSOs, including Hockey Canada and Canada Soccer. Each board must also have no more than 60 per cent of one gender, and directors will no longer be permitted to serve indefinitely.
Organizations will have to comply with the changes before getting federal money. The new steps are an attempt to bring more professionalism to Canadian sport organizations. Several NSOs have been embroiled in high-profile controversies in the past two years, including allegations of sexual assault, abuse, maltreatment and financial malfeasance.
Previously, Sport Canada had very little enforcement power. Though the Minister of Sport could freeze an organization’s funding – as it did temporarily last year when Hockey Canada was accused of mishandling sexual assault allegations against players on the 2018 national junior team – it is a step seldom taken. And there were no clear rules around what would trigger that decision. Ottawa is now giving Sport Canada a framework to penalize organizations.
“What we’ve heard is that there needs to be more accountability in this system, more transparency,” Ms. St-Onge told The Globe. “It’s everything that we’ve heard from athletes during their testimonies, but also the numerous consultations that we’ve had with stakeholders in this sport system and the victims.”
As The Globe and Mail reported this week, Sport Canada has missed governance problems at NSOs in the past. Internal report cards created by the department in 2021 and 2022 to examine the governance policies of NSOs ignored numerous red flags, giving high grades to several organizations that are at the centre of such allegations.
The government is also creating an Athlete Advisory Committee inside Sport Canada, giving athletes a voice within the department that funds NSOs. “This is also part of breaking the culture of silence – having athlete representation at all levels,” Ms. St-Onge said. “Not having their voice at the decision-making table is a problem.”
The announcement includes $300,000 of funding for AthletesCAN, which represents national team members, to provide governance training for those who take on roles as directors.
Ottawa is also seeking to end the use of nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) by sports organizations, particularly in cases of alleged abuse, by changing the wording of the agreements athletes sign with NSOs. The new contracts will make it clear to athletes what rights they have to push back against NDAs.
Erin Willson, an Olympian in artistic swimming who is now president of AthletesCAN, said the group helped advise, with lawyers, language that could be used as a template in athlete contracts.
“When you’re a 16, 17-year-old athlete who’s just really excited to get on the national team, having to sign a document and not really understanding what you’re signing is challenging,” Ms. Willson said. “So we’ve done the work on the athletes’ side to create something that we’re comfortable with them signing.”
New screening measures for coaches and staff are also being implemented. Ottawa is providing $250,000 to the Coaching Association of Canada to ensure better background checks on national and development team coaches, as well as international coaches who take jobs with Canadian teams.
“We want to make sure they understand that there is no tolerance for abuse, or maltreatment, or sex, or grooming, or psychological abuse, or sexual abuse in the Canadian sports system,” Ms. St-Onge said. The changes will be implemented at the national level with the hope that provinces and territories will follow suit.
A national registry of coaches sanctioned for abuse will also be implemented within the next year, administered by the Office of the Sports Integrity Commissioner, an independent division of the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada. Athletes and parents have been calling for such a move for years, to prevent coaches from moving provinces to continue coaching if they are penalized in one jurisdiction.
The registry will list the names of coaches and staff while they are under sanction. Once the penalty is over, the infractions will be removed from public view, though sports organizations will still be able to see the list of previously sanctioned coaches.
The Canadian Olympic Committee’s Athletes’ Commission, along with AthletesCAN, both said the reforms announced Thursday are a step in the right direction. The COC announced its own pledge of $1-million toward safe sport education.
However, the Coalition Against Abuse in Sport, a group representing some athletes in gymnastics, soccer and other sports, said the measures don’t go far enough to solve gaps in Sport Canada oversight.
At a news conference in Ottawa, Ms. St-Onge addressed those who have called for a national inquiry into maltreatment in Canadian sport. “This is a legitimate request, and I’m working to be able to announce this as soon as I can,” she said.