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How lax oversight at Sport Canada, including a poorly designed report card system, missed key signs of trouble inside the Canadian sport system

More on this storyLatest developmentsHow The Globe got the documents

When Ciara McCormack thinks back to all the times she and her teammates raised alarms inside her sport about a coach who sexually harassed and groomed underage players, she sometimes loses track of how many complaints were made to Canada Soccer and related organizations.

“Over 30 different times we tried to report it over the years,” she said. “Knowing there was a predator on the field, nothing happened.”

McCormack eventually gave up on the process and went public with the allegations in 2019, speaking out on behalf of teammates who were angry the man had been allowed to continue coaching teenage girls – and went on to commit further offences. In 2022, the coach pleaded guilty to three counts of sexual assault and one count of touching a young person for a sexual purpose. He was sentenced to 16 months in jail and eight months house arrest.

What the athletes didn’t know was that nearly five years ago, as McCormack was appealing publicly for help, Sport Canada, the federal department that provides more than $130-million of annual funding and oversight to national sports organizations, was conducting an internal analysis.

The department was putting together a report card designed to grade Canada Soccer on its governance, along with dozens of other sports federations. When Sport Canada evaluated Canada Soccer’s policies on how such complaints are handled, it gave the federation a passing mark.

Even as numerous complaints about the coach were going ignored, Sport Canada’s report card noted no major deficiencies with the policies governing those situations inside the organization. Under the category of dispute resolution, which includes oversight of abuse complaints, Canada Soccer received a grade of “satisfactory,” meaning it was not required to take further action.

Reached in Ireland, where she now runs a professional soccer club, McCormack was shocked to hear of the passing grades in the report card, which The Globe and Mail obtained through an access to information request.

“Wow,” McCormack said, pausing to let the report card sink in. “I don’t think they even know what they’re grading.”

“If you hear our story, and know that a coach ended up in jail because of it, and then you’re giving out a passing grade in those circumstances – it’s laughable.”

The report cards, in depth

In the table below, see which National Sport Organizations got the highest grades from Sport Canada in June, 2022, and learn more about how The Globe and Mail obtained the documents.

The Globe obtained report cards produced in 2021 and 2022 for 62 national sports organizations, or NSOs. The files span more than 6,400 pages in total, and they represent one of the most significant attempts at oversight by Sport Canada in years.

But the report cards show multiple organizations facing serious allegations – such as physical and sexual abuse, or financial malfeasance – were nonetheless receiving high or passing grades.

They also show how limited the analysis was. It focused on the content of policies at each NSO, rather than scrutinizing how those policies were being implemented, or what was actually happening inside each organization.

In December, Minister of Sport Carla Qualtrough struck a federal commission to probe abuse and maltreatment in sport, after repeated calls from athletes across many sports for Ottawa to confront the problem. The move isn’t the full judicial inquiry they were seeking, but in making the announcement the minister acknowledged the system is facing a crisis.

Allegations of abuse and governance problems have been raised by athletes in at least 15 NSOs, which together receive tens of millions of dollars in funding from Sport Canada. The list includes gymnastics, hockey, track and field, artistic swimming, fencing, bobsleigh and boxing.

But the role Sport Canada plays in overseeing those organizations has received comparatively little attention.

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Canada Soccer's governance problems were not reflected in its Sport Canada report card.Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

Canada Soccer has emerged as one of the most troubled. But Sport Canada’s internal governance report cards contain no indication of that. Despite revelations that Canada Soccer is facing a litany of other problems, including poor fiscal management and highly questionable business decisions, Sport Canada gave it passing grades for financial strategy and top marks for strategic planning.

This is among the clearest examples of how Sport Canada’s evaluation of NSO policies and procedures differs greatly from reality.

As The Globe reported in late December, the flawed report card project has been shelved, and no one at Sport Canada is eager to discuss its failings. But it leaves a tarnished legacy of missed or ignored warnings. The report cards repeatedly glossed over policies that were either poorly designed or not being followed, while handing out dozens of passing grades.

When former national-team soccer player Andrea Neil testified in Ottawa this spring, during parliamentary hearings to examine abuse in sport, she wondered aloud whose responsibility it was to scrutinize how Canada Soccer and other NSOs are run. “My fundamental question as these organizations are doing all of this is, ‘Who has oversight for them?’” Neil asked.

That role falls to Sport Canada, which funds the NSOs in exchange for their compliance with standards on good governance.

But in a year when allegations have been mounting inside numerous organizations, the report cards show that the oversight problems in Canadian sport are not limited to the federations themselves. Those issues go right to the top – to the government agency cutting the cheques.

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Hockey Canada executives testify in Ottawa last year. The policies governing its board received top marks from Sport Canada only months before directors were forced to resign over mishandling rape allegations.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

A flaw in the system

Sport Canada’s report card project began in 2019, in relative secrecy. Athletes were never told evaluations of NSOs were being conducted, and none were given the opportunity to speak with Sport Canada about governance failings they had witnessed inside their federations.

Several athletes said they could easily have pointed out problem areas for Sport Canada to address, including concerns they suspected were being kept from the government.

The purpose of the report card exercise, Sport Canada said in a statement to The Globe, was to give Ottawa a sense of governance levels and procedures at each of Canada’s NSOs, so it could track trends and stay on top of problems.

It was a pilot project “that served to gather baseline data and monitor progress of sport organizations at the national level,” Sport Canada spokesperson Daniel Savoie said.

The lack of such baseline data suggests that, as recently as four or five years ago, the department had limited knowledge of how the various NSOs were operating. This included what their governance policies were and – most importantly – how those policies were being carried out.

NSOs operate independently from the government, but, because they receive funding from Sport Canada, it has some oversight over each federation. It can withhold that money, if needed, as a way of punishing an organization for poor governance.

But that lever has rarely been used.

Hockey Canada’s funding was pulled in 2022 over its mishandling of rape allegations. Gymnastics Canada and Bobsleigh Canada later also had their funding pulled because of concerns about abuse. But in each case, the suspensions were temporary. Prior to that, the last time an NSO was punished in this way was in the late 1990s or early 2000s. Sport Canada couldn’t say definitively when.

A key flaw in the report cards, The Globe found, was how they were constructed. This resulted in two significant gaps in oversight.

First, if an NSO had serious problems – anything from a broken complaints system to conflicts of interest in its executive ranks – but its policies looked good on paper, Sport Canada awarded it high marks. The system was effectively blind to problems that were happening in reality.

Second, even in cases where Sport Canada did detect problems with governance, such as poorly devised policies, those NSOs were not flagged for closer inspection to see what issues might exist as a result. Sport Canada simply asked the organization to redo its rules and regulations and resubmit its paperwork. It was another blind spot.

At several troubled NSOs, including Canada Soccer, Hockey Canada, Canada Artistic Swimming, Gymnastics Canada and others, the governance report cards either showed no indication of a problem or, when marks were low, resulted in no further inspection or decisive action.

But even with Sport Canada’s focus on written policies dominating the analysis, athletes wonder how it could have missed clear warning signs.

The flaws that allowed problems to happen in at least two NSOs were written into the policies, they say.

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'To hear that they’ve been graded really fantastically is disappointing,' fencer Emily Mason said of the Canadian Fencing Federation's high marks in the Sport Canada governance report card.Jennifer Gauthier/The Globe and Mail

‘It was really scary’

At the Canadian Fencing Federation, athletes say there are risks to speaking up.

Under federation policy, roster spots for major tournaments, such as world cups, can be chosen subjectively by coaches, rather than according to results. At least one Olympic spot is also decided this way.

Fencer Emily Mason said there is a clear disincentive for athletes to file complaints against coaches or executives, who exert direct control over their careers.

“A lot of athletes felt so unsafe because there was the real risk – in the policy – that they could be retaliated against for speaking up against somebody who had power. And they didn’t try to hide it. It was right there in the policy,” Mason said. “They felt bullied into not making complaints.”

These policies were there for Sport Canada to scrutinize, Mason said, and athletes would have welcomed an opportunity to explain how the federation’s rules prevented proper dispute resolution. But the athletes were never consulted.

Meanwhile, Sport Canada gave the organization top marks. The Canadian Fencing Federation was ranked one of the top NSOs in the country for dispute resolution, with a score of four out of five. The organization’s complaints policy “is well managed,” the report card said.

When told of the grade, Mason said it was frustrating.

“To hear that they’ve been graded really fantastically is disappointing,” Mason said. “It certainly indicates to me that perhaps we’re not looking deep enough into how things are actually being governed.”

David Howes, the Canadian Fencing Federation’s executive director since 2020, said he understands the concerns, but is unaware of any situation where an athlete has been kept off a team while registering a complaint.

“I haven’t seen any complaints, since I’ve been involved, where an athlete felt that the coach was not selecting them for a reason other than performance,” Howes said.

Dozens of fencing athletes issued an open letter this spring, calling out their federation for poor governance. It was the first time they had spoken publicly about allegations of maltreatment.

During testimony in Ottawa in the spring, Howes said the federation had been surprised by the letter and would examine changes to address the concerns.

MPs at the hearing asked him if Sport Canada had sought any action in response to the athletes’ public allegations. “We have not been given any direction from Sport Canada,” he said.

Howes told The Globe in December that he had contacted Sport Canada himself. “I keep them up to date,” he said. “I wouldn’t say they reached out to me to ask me what’s happening.”

The federation has since introduced an athlete representative on its board, who is reviewing selection policies, he said.

If Sport Canada had been adequately scrutinizing the federation, Mason said, it would have easily spotted the power imbalance inherent in the policy.

But fencing isn’t alone. Olympic boxer Myriam Da Silva Rondeau has raised similar concerns about Boxing Canada.

When she complained about maltreatment by her coach, she was forced to sit out matches until the matter was resolved, she said. It cost her precious training time.

“Whistleblowing mechanisms take months, and you are unable to compete,” she told MPs at a hearing in May. “Why would you blow the whistle on anyone?”

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After making a complaint, boxer Myriam Da Silva Rondeau said she was punished.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Boxing Canada was graded three out of five for dispute resolution on its report card, suggesting Sport Canada was satisfied with its policy.

The passing grade was identical to the score Canada Soccer received. But the report card gave no indication of what was lacking, or why Boxing Canada merited a pass, other than to say “disputes are appropriately tracked,” and “there is a documented dispute resolution process in place, established either through policy or procedure.”

Christopher Lindsay, who was named executive director of Boxing Canada in May, said the organization’s treatment of Da Silva Rondeau was “inadequate.”

He said he’s not certain where the failure occurred, but that he can see proper procedures weren’t followed.

“No one was providing any level of oversight. It was really scary,” Lindsay said.

Boxing Canada has clear policies now that say athletes won’t be pulled from training while awaiting dispute resolution, he said.

Da Silva Rondeau wonders how closely Sport Canada was looking at her organization.

“I think [Sport Canada representatives] are supposed to be monitoring what’s happening within the federations. But I’ve never seen any,” she said. “Under the current system, athletes are responsible for the oversight of their federation.”

Mason also wonders why that is.

“Where does the buck stop with athlete safety? Who’s really responsible?” she said. “I’m not sure – but it shouldn’t be the athletes. That I know.”

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Luge Canada questioned how it received the lowest score in Sport Canada’s governance report cards, while organizations facing a multitude of serious allegations were graded much higher.Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

Giving check marks

From the outset of Sport Canada’s report card project, there were signs of problems.

When Luge Canada was told, along with the rest of Canada’s NSOs, to submit records detailing its governance policies, Tim Farstad, executive director of the federation, began putting together the required material.

Each NSO had to provide evidence of policies and procedures on everything from how its board of directors was constructed, to risk management, financial planning and how disputes with athletes were handled, among other things.

For about a year, Farstad heard nothing. Then, when his scores came back, he was surprised to learn he ran the lowest-rated NSO in Canada.

Of the nine categories evaluated, with a maximum score of five in each category, Luge Canada registered six zeros. Its total score, out of a possible 45 points, was six. The national average for all NSOs in 2022 was 22.02.

Unhappy, Farstad began questioning Sport Canada. His federation wasn’t besieged with governance problems and allegations of abuse like other NSOs, so why was Luge Canada rated the worst?

After months of waiting for an answer, he was eventually told his policy documents were not formatted correctly and he didn’t use the right terminology. He started to question the process.

“It was things like, ‘well, we just needed another sentence here to make that a check mark. Or that wasn’t in the proper format’,” Farstad recalled.

“And I’m like, ‘But we had these things in place.’”

Actual performance didn’t matter.

“It was, ‘Do you have a policy in place for this? Yes? Then check’. It wasn’t, ‘How many issues have you had’,” Farstad said.

NSOs could challenge their scores, so Farstad did. Again, he waited several months for a response. “They said they were going to give us a couple more points and a couple more checks and that type of thing,” he told The Globe. “But that’s all I received.”

His improved score never came. But some NSOs with serious governance problems and allegations of abuse were able to boost their grades after appealing to Sport Canada.

The Globe’s analysis of the report cards issued in 2021 and 2022 shows that about a dozen NSOs were given improved scores the second year, after initially being marked lower and contesting the grades.

Sport Canada allowed those NSOs to resubmit their policy information in more detail. “Sport Canada worked with those organizations to provide them with the opportunity to make internal improvements,” Savoie said.

There are signs the process was less than rigorous.

Hockey Canada received one of the biggest increases of all. Its total score was boosted to 33, from 25.

Sport Canada gave it new grades for board structure, which was awarded a perfect score of five, up from two; board development, which was boosted to four, up from two; and risk management, to five, up from two.

Those improved grades were handed out in 2022, about six months before Hockey Canada’s entire board of directors resigned amid allegations it had tried to cover up an alleged sexual assault involving players.

Farstad believes the report card system had problems.

“I know in our case, I don’t think it evaluated us correctly,” he said.

“The process itself, I think, was a little flawed.”

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Sport Minister Carla Qualtrough said Sport Canada could play a bigger, ‘more rigorous’ role in overseeing NSOs.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

A new system, many questions

The Globe first learned of Sport Canada’s report cards when it obtained a copy of Hockey Canada’s grades from a source inside the federal government. It took seven months to obtain the entire set of 62 NSO report cards through an access to information request.

Sport Canada is now shelving the project with the same opaqueness that surrounded its creation. Though rumours circulated among NSOs this fall that the report cards were being scrapped, the government only recently confirmed the decision.

“The Report Card was one of the tools used by Sport Canada to monitor progress on government expectations of sport organizations at the national level and adapt the requirements as necessary,” Savoie said.

A new approach is being devised, which could give Sport Canada more teeth, but few specifics have been disclosed.

In May, after the initial problems with the report cards were revealed, the government announced the creation of a new compliance and accountability unit, intended to confront poor governance at NSOs.

The new office is expected to be given powers to penalize federations financially for not meeting standards for professional governance. Though Sport Canada has historically been reluctant to pull NSO funding, the new office will have a clearer mandate on when that step can be taken.

Qualtrough, who was named Minister of Sport in July, believes Sport Canada’s role should change, and should move away from the largely administrative stance it has been been criticized for, in which it writes funding cheques to troubled NSOs without demanding more accountability. Instead, she said, it should take a more active enforcement approach, which athletes and victims have been calling for.

“I am of the opinion that Sport Canada’s historical role as a sport-system funder has been heavily focused on the administration and operations of sport. I believe that the sport system could benefit from more rigorous, targeted Sport Canada oversight,” she said in a statement.

But “the extent to which Sport Canada can, will, or should regulate is an open-ended question,” Qualtrough said.

The Globe sent several questions to Sport Canada, asking who will run the new office, how many staff members it will include and how it will operate. Most of the questions were not answered.

In an e-mailed statement, Sport Canada spokesperson David Larose said the compliance unit is still taking shape.

“The objective is to identify the best approaches to prevent and detect compliance issues and to ensure sport organizations are best positioned to correct them,” he said.

No other details were provided.

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'Sport Canada doesn’t seem interested in holding themselves accountable,’ Ciara McCormack said.Eimear Lynch/The Globe and Mail

‘Could have done more’

McCormack and other athletes are upset about what the governance report cards failed to accomplish. They are left wondering why Sport Canada hasn’t been asked tougher questions about the organizations it funds.

Meanwhile, Canada Soccer did not respond to questions from The Globe about its report card, including a question about how the organization justifies some of the high scores it received, considering the problems it faces.

McCormack said she finds this unacceptable. “It goes back to transparency and accountability,” she added. “Who made these report cards? Where are the faces? Who gave the grades? What was your reasoning? Explain it.”

When she appeared at federal hearings in May to discuss the problems inside soccer, and the women who were harmed, McCormack repeatedly fought back tears. In five minutes of testimony, she broke down three times. The first came just 19 seconds in. Afterward, several MPs praised her for getting through it.

“Sport Canada doesn’t seem interested in holding themselves accountable or bringing any kind of light to the horrendous job that’s been done from an accountability and transparency perspective,” McCormack told The Globe. “And athletes are the ones that are taking the hits.”

With a federal commission set to spend 18 months probing problems at various levels of sport, it is unclear whether Sport Canada will be called to testify.

But when retired Supreme Court judge Thomas Cromwell conducted a governance review of Hockey Canada in 2022 he concluded Sport Canada had a responsibility for overseeing that organization, which it didn’t meet.

Examining the report card for Hockey Canada as part of his review, Cromwell questioned the grades, suggesting Sport Canada had missed obvious problems.

Exemplary scores, given just months before the entire board resigned in scandal, were a glaring example.

Writing in the conclusions of his final report, Cromwell had this to say about Sport Canada’s oversight: “I will simply observe that many could have done more to address the issues sooner.”

In depth: How Sport Canada graded governance

When The Globe and Mail obtained copies of Sport Canada’s report cards this year, which graded governance policies at national sports organizations, the documents showed federations with serious problems, from alleged sexual abuse to financial mismanagement, received top scores. Here are the scores issued in 2022.

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