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Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge makes her way to caucus, Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021, in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

As Ottawa reviews how national sport organizations deal with abuse within their own ranks, University of Toronto researchers are laying out a possible path for the government to fix a system rife with potential conflicts of interest.

In a letter to Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge obtained by The Globe and Mail, U of T researchers Gretchen Kerr, Peter Donnelly and Bruce Kidd detail how the minister can patch key holes in Ottawa’s plan to address abuse in sport. The plan was unveiled last year and is now at the centre of controversy.

The federal government announced the new system in July, naming the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada (SDRCC) to investigate allegations of abuse inside national sport organizations (NSOs), from the Olympic level down to the grassroots across Canada.

However, a Globe investigation last month exposed critical flaws in the new system, because it allows the more than 60 national sport organizations (NSOs) to opt out of the process if they choose, and instead hire their own third-party investigators to examine allegations of abuse.

Athletes say this effectively allows the NSOs to investigate themselves, opening the door for problems to be ignored or covered up. Several prominent Olympians, including freestyle skiers Jennifer Heil and Alex Bilodeau, figure skater Patrick Chan, hurdler Perdita Felicien, and high jumper Derek Drouin, have said they are concerned about that lack of independence.

In their letter to Ms. St-Onge, the U of T researchers provide options for the minister to fix the problem, and call on Ottawa to make the new independent system mandatory through Sport Canada, which funds the various organizations.

“It is our strong view that you should mandate participation,” the letter says. “That would be fully in keeping with similar requirements of the Sport Canada Funding Framework and the long-standing expectation that federally funded sports bodies exemplify the best values of Canadian society.”

Failing that, the researchers said Ottawa should give the SDRCC power to oversee the third-party investigators chosen by NSOs to ensure they are truly independent, are performing their duties properly, and are not biased toward the organizations that hire and pay them.

“If you are not prepared to go this route, we strongly advise that you tie future funding to strict conditions of independence for the opted-out NSOs, and that the SDRCC be commissioned to closely monitor such compliance.”

The Globe’s investigation looked at allegations of abuse within the national synchronized swimming program, including that several athletes were driven to dangerous eating disorders – putting some in hospital – by arbitrary metrics and questionable science pushed on them by coaches. However, the swimmers say they tried several times over the past decade to raise concerns within the program, but those complaints never went anywhere.

Canada Artistic Swimming, which governs synchronized swimming, appointed its own third-party investigator to probe recent athlete complaints. However, the organization announced in March that it “did not see sufficient evidence” of a problem. That investigation has not been made public, and little is known about how it was conducted. About 50 synchronized swimmers have since launched a class-action lawsuit, turning to the courts because they fear the system for investigating abuse was slanted against them.

After The Globe’s article, which examined dubious sport science deployed by the program, Ms. St-Onge criticized the treatment of the athletes, calling it unacceptable. “It is clear from the research and recent reports in The Globe and Mail that we need to do more and to move quickly,” Ms. St-Onge said, adding that she would review the systems in place.

“The situations described in the article are more than worrying and must be denounced.”

The matter is now a pressing issue for Ms. St-Onge, who was named Sport Minister in October. She inherits the file from previous minister Steven Guilbeault, with several key questions hanging over the new system, which is set to begin operating in April.

It is unclear how many NSOs will volunteer to join the independent SDRCC process, and how many will continue to appoint and pay their own investigators when problems arise, which athletes like Ms. Heil argue is a clear conflict of interest. In an e-mail exchange with The Globe, a spokesman for Canada Artistic Swimming was non-committal on the organization’s plans, and would not say if it would join.

Some NSOs are reluctant to give up power over their own processes. But even though those organizations are independent from government, the U of T researchers say there is no reason Sport Canada can’t impose the requirements on them.

Ms. Kerr, the dean of Kinesiology and Physical Education at the U of T who has spent her career researching abuse in sport, said on issues such as doping and concussion protocols, governments have been able to require that sports organizations comply with new rules.

“They were quite capable of mandating mandatory random testing after the Ben Johnson case,” Ms. Kerr said, referring to changes in doping protocols in Canada after the sprinter was caught using steroids in 1988. “And it came from the government who said: ‘Here it is, there’s going to be an organization developed to address this, and you’re going to be subject to random drug testing.’ So I just don’t buy the argument that it can’t be done.”

She also pointed to more recent concussion protocols that sports organizations across Canada have been required to adopt. When it comes to investigating allegations of abuse, Ms. Kerr said she is surprised Sport Canada has been reluctant to step in with an equally firm hand, and hopes the new minister sees the problem differently.

The government has the ability to reduce or revoke funding from NSOs if it sees problems. But Mr. Kidd, a professor emeritus and ombudsman at the U of T who also signed the letter, said this option is rarely if ever used. As well, pulling funding is a blunt tool. Confronting allegations of abuse with a proper independent investigation that can lead to targeted sanctions against the perpetrators is a better idea.

Ms. Kerr has done work in the past as an independent investigator for NSOs and, though she has seen processes that worked, she also has seen the problems that are caused when there isn’t complete independence.

“I can tell you that if you run up against a situation as an investigator where someone wants something put under the rug, then that case never gets into the public eye, or even people in the organization don’t become aware of it,” Ms. Kerr said. “It’s just so riddled with conflicts of interest.”