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It began with a low-quality photo, taken on a cellphone by someone inside the federal government.

The picture was sent by an intermediary to protect the person who took it, who feared they might be punished or lose their job for divulging it. The photo showed a single page of a Sport Canada document that few people outside the government knew existed.

It was a report card for Hockey Canada. The word “confidential” was printed across the page in large block letters.

In the summer of 2022, Hockey Canada had been accused of trying to cover up an alleged sexual assault involving players. Its board of directors was just three months from being told to step down because of serious errors in its governance and oversight.

And yet Sport Canada’s report card on Hockey Canada’s governance policies, created less than a year earlier, showed no signs of concern. For the most part, the government had given the organization top marks. According to the report card, Hockey Canada was a model organization.

This raised a few important questions: What were these report cards exactly? And how rigorous was Sport Canada’s analysis of the country’s national sports organizations, or NSOs?

In the past few years, allegations of physical and sexual abuse, poor governance and financial mismanagement have been raised by athletes in at least 15 NSOs. Sport Canada’s role as the government body that not only funds these federations, but also oversees their compliance and governance, has always loomed over these problems.

How closely was Sport Canada looking? Could the agency that writes more than $130-million worth of cheques to NSOs each year have done more to oversee how they operate? The photo was an important clue.

Obtaining the documents

After The Globe and Mail had confirmed the document was real, it was crucial to obtain more of the report cards. If there was a grading system for Hockey Canada, there must be one for every NSO in the country. This would be a trove of data, one that could provide insight into how much of a handle Sport Canada had – or didn’t have – on governance at these organizations.

The Globe filed an access to information request in late August last year for every NSO report card produced by Sport Canada. The photo was crucial. It provided specific details about the report card project, including dates the documents were produced, the titles of each section and the areas Sport Canada had examined.

But even with that level of detail, obtaining the documents from Sport Canada was not easy. It took seven months until the report cards were finally released to The Globe in the spring of 2023. When the package arrived, the covering letter said the report cards were being “disclosed entirely.” Every file was included – with no redactions.

There were 6,468 pages in total, condensed into six zip files. This included a set of 62 report cards, one for each NSO analyzed in 2021, along with a set of updated report cards done in 2022, which included revised scores for organizations that had contested their grades and had them changed by Sport Canada.

Making the data public

Through interviews, it became clear that athletes and parents who had raised concerns about abuse and other serious problems at several of Canada’s sports organizations had no idea such report cards existed.

This meant disclosing how each NSO had been graded on governance, policies and procedures was a matter of transparency and accountability. Publishing the grades would allow people to see information that was otherwise being kept from them.

For The Globe to begin analyzing and comparing the scores, columns of numbers from each report card had to be manually entered into a spreadsheet, then verified. In time, a comprehensive database was built.

The data set could quickly identify trends, weaknesses and mistakes in Sport Canada’s grading. But the goal was also to make the information digestible for Canadians.

Danielle Webb and Jeremy Agius, two members of The Globe’s data visualization team, set out to build an online chart that was easily searchable, and that would allow anyone interested to scroll through the grades of dozens of NSOs, or zero in on one particular federation.

Once public, the report cards were scrutinized by concerned athletes and parents across the country, many of them interested in knowing how Sport Canada was analyzing their federations, and curious to compare the scores to what they saw happening on the ground.

Diving deeper

The problems with Sport Canada’s report cards were first revealed by a Globe investigation in May. But the sheer volume of data contained in the thousands of pages of documents necessitated a deeper dive.

By summer, Canada Soccer had emerged as one of the most problem-plagued NSOs in the country. It was facing allegations that it had ignored more than a decade of complaints about sexual harassment from athletes, was rife with conflicts of interest in its executive ranks, and had squandered its financial health through questionable business deals.

And yet, Sport Canada had apparently missed many of these governance problems in its analysis of Canada Soccer’s policies and practices. Athletes said they hadn’t been consulted.

As The Globe investigated the report card program further, rumours began to circulate late this fall that Sport Canada had quietly shut down the project after its problems were exposed. Sport Canada later confirmed it was going in a new direction.

The program had been shelved.

The failings of the report cards, and the gaps in oversight they indicate, might have remained secret if the documents hadn’t been made public. The cellphone photo helped bring those issues into the light.

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