An internal analysis of dozens of Canada’s most prominent national sports organizations shows the federal government failed to recognize serious governance problems now plaguing several of them.
The Globe and Mail obtained internal government report cards for 62 of the organizations, known as NSOs, which were graded on their governance policies in 2021 and 2022.
Sport Canada, the federal department that funds these organizations, gave top marks to several that are now under fire for serious problems, including allegations of abuse, sexual assault and financial malfeasance.
In the past two years alone, Hockey Canada, Canada Soccer, Canada Artistic Swimming and Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton have each come under intense public scrutiny because of serious governance problems.
But each of them received higher grades from Sport Canada than most of their peers.
Hockey Canada, which was heavily criticized last year for governance errors that led to its flawed handling of sexual-assault allegations against members of the 2018 national junior team, received the seventh-highest grades out of the 62 organizations.
Canada Artistic Swimming, currently facing a lawsuit from former athletes who accuse it of abuse, including using suspect science to force them into dangerous eating disorders and failing to address their complaints, received the highest score of any NSO for its governance. That included a perfect score of five out of five for its dispute resolution policies.
Bobsleigh Skeleton Canada, which has also faced complaints from athletes about maltreatment and abuse, received the 18th highest grades of the 62 associations. It received a score of four out of five for its dispute resolution policies.
The high scores suggest Sport Canada missed or ignored problems at several NSOs, grading them on whether they had governance policies, but not examining how they operated.
As the report cards were being produced in 2021 and 2022, Sport Canada would have been aware of controversies engulfing several organizations.
At the same time, the report cards show several organizations received low scores in crucial areas, suggesting there were governance red flags at some NSOs that should have set off alarms within the department, but did not.
Gymnastics Canada, facing abuse allegations from former athletes and a proposed class-action lawsuit, placed 24th out of 62. It received a grade of zero out of five for board development, one out of five for conflict-of-interest policies and three out of five for dispute resolution policies.
Canada Soccer, which was called to parliamentary hearings this year to answer allegations of financial mismanagement and mishandling of sexual assault allegations, was heavily criticized for conflicts of interest among its management ranks. It ranked 22nd overall. Its policies to manage conflicts of interest received a failing grade of two, suggesting the signs of a problem were apparent a few years ago. It also received a dismal grade for board development, one out of five.
And even though Hockey Canada was given high grades overall by Sport Canada, the report cards show it received a grade of one out of five for its conflict of interest polices, and a three out of five for its policies relating to its board’s role and responsibility.
Hockey Canada was criticized by MPs during federal hearings last summer for having an ineffective board that was rife with conflicts of interest. Directors had taken gifts from the NSO, including championship rings and lavish dinners, all while failing to properly investigate sexual assault allegations against the organization.
In October, the organization’s board was forced to resign amid calls from corporate sponsors and the government for them to step down.
‘Bad governance leads to poor decisions’
Sport Canada said the grading system was a project designed to monitor the organizations over time, to see if they improve. The grades, which The Globe obtained through an access-to-information request, were based on material volunteered by each NSO. The department did not delve into their operations to see if the NSOs were actually properly implementing their governance policies.
“The purpose was for sport organizations to use their results to review and improve their policies and practices,” Sport Canada spokesperson Daniel Savoie said in an e-mailed statement. “The results of the evaluation were intended to inform policy and program direction, and to have a baseline for systemic trends.”
But the grades raise questions about how effective Sport Canada is at evaluating the organizations it writes tens of millions of dollars’ worth of funding cheques to each year, and how much oversight it provides.
Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge acknowledged the problem with the department’s oversight of NSOs in a statement to The Globe, saying the organizations must be more accountable to Sport Canada for their actions. “We know and have witnessed how bad governance leads to poor decisions that can have devastating consequences on athletes, coaches, and sport,” Ms. St-Onge said.
“We are currently working on achieving increased capacity within Sport Canada to better monitor NSOs on their governance, transparency, and accountability.”
“The goal is to reduce self-assessment by NSOs and gather information based on clear key performance indicators,” she added. “This will also help us intervene more quickly and efficiently when there are deficiencies. This is one next step towards building safer and more accountable sport environments.”
‘A horrible job’
Conservative MP Kevin Waugh, who sits on a parliamentary committee that has been investigating governance problems in Canadian sport, said he is disappointed in Sport Canada for continuing to fund organizations without following up on problems.
“Sport Canada has been pretty good at establishing the standards for funding, but has done a horrible job – a brutal job – at reviewing them for compliance. And that’s where the problem is. They never follow up,” Mr. Waugh said.
“Artistic Swimming, Gymnastics, Rugby, Soccer, Hockey – the flags were there. You’ve got to blame Sport Canada for that.”
He said the report cards looked only at whether organizations had properly worded policies, which he called shoddy oversight by the department. “It’s, ‘do you have a policy in place for this?’ Check. Not, ‘how many issues have you had?’ ” Mr. Waugh said.
Canada Artistic Swimming, the top scorer among the NSOs, with 39 out of a possible 45 points (well above the average score of 22.02), said it believes the report cards show it has effective policies in place, despite the many complaints of abuse by former national team members.
“We have a strong rating in many areas, including dispute resolution,” Canada Artistic Swimming chief executive Steve Wallace said. “We use the Sport Canada report card as one of the tools available to identify areas for improvement in comparison to other NSOs.”
Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, who sits on the committee with Mr. Waugh, said the fact that Canada Artistic Swimming could be besieged by abuse allegations yet still score highly shows Sport Canada’s process is seriously flawed.
“It shows that Sport Canada needs to reform the way it evaluates the organizations. And there needs to be continued oversight, to have them explain how they’re going to improve,” Mr. Housefather said. “The criteria could include, for example, is there a class-action lawsuit filed by all of your athletes against you?”
More professionalism needed
Hockey Canada was examined by former Supreme Court justice Thomas Cromwell in a governance review last fall. Mr. Cromwell found that the organization, which thought it had acceptable governance, was significantly lacking when evaluated using standards from outside the sports world.
Gymnastics Canada, also facing allegations of abuse from athletes, said it is aware it needs to change. It scored a total of 24 out of 45. The organization received a grade of zero for board development policies, a score of one out of five for conflict-of-interest policies, and a two for board role and responsibility.
“We’ve known for quite a while that we had to improve,” Gymnastics Canada interim chair Bernard Petiot said in an interview. He returned to the sport two years ago after leaving a management role at Cirque du Soleil, and is trying to help rebuild the organization.
“I think the report card reflected the reality, and key questions that were essential for the organization to look at. Now where we stand, really to be honest with you, is we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Mr. Petiot said.
Conflicts of interest are all too common in NSOs, because people who gravitate to them often come from within their own sports, Mr. Petiot said. That leads to less-professional boards. But he said this is no excuse.
“NSOs have to push the envelope to more professionalism,” he said, noting the system requires “a more businesslike mindset.”
Several of the lowest-scoring NSOs were smaller organizations, which said they lacked enough staff, funding or expertise to develop governance strategies and policies. Several said they could use guidance from Sport Canada in that regard.
Luge Canada scored the lowest of the 62 NSOs, with a total score of six out of 45. It received zeroes in six out of the nine categories, including board composition, board development, conflict of interest and strategic planning.
“We knew we were going to be low. We don’t have very many staff, we don’t get provided much administration funding,” Luge Canada executive director Tim Farstad said.
But Mr. Farstad said he had an issue with the way the grading was conducted. He said some information provided to Sport Canada was not recognized because it was not worded correctly. “It was handled in a way that was difficult to get feedback. It was kind of thrown as us quickly and we needed to prepare and send documents in,” he said.
Baseball Canada, which placed near the bottom at 56th, said as a small organization it has been focusing its efforts in recent years on policies and procedures aimed at making the sport safer, including by preventing abuse and concussions. That may have pushed governance issues to the back burner, said Jason Dickson, who became CEO of Baseball Canada just under two years ago. He said the NSO is using the report card as a tool to tell it where to get better.
“We’re actively going through the things that were identified,” Mr. Dickson said. “We’re not afraid of not scoring well on something. We’d rather understand exactly where you sit and where you fit in, and then say okay, let’s fix that, versus not fully understanding where some of the gaps are.”
He said Baseball Canada supports the process, and would support making NSOs more accountable to Sport Canada.
“I would have no issue if it was attached to your performance and to your funding, because I think it’s a good tool to hold sports accountable and it’s not something to be afraid of. It’s something to look at honestly and say, okay, we need to pull our socks up in these areas.”
The internal report cards were part of a two-stage process: an initial grade was given in 2021, and NSOs could come back with more information to boost their grades for a final report card in early 2022. There are 63 NSOs in Canada. One of them, Canada DanceSport, was not included in the report cards because it was only recently added to the list of Sport Canada-funded organizations.
The flaws in the report card process are serious, said Mr. Waugh, the Conservative MP. He said he believes a more vigilant Sport Canada could have acted faster to prevent bad governance and problems at some NSOs.
“I’m very disappointed in Sport Canada. They’ve got to take a leadership role and I don’t think we’ve seen that, and that’s caused a lot of the problems that we have.”
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