For Pascale St-Onge, sports have always been a source of joy. A competitive swimmer for 11 years, and then a volleyball player in university, the federal Minister of Sport grew up training with great coaches and like-minded teammates. Her parents were involved and supportive.
Which is why, she says, she is so struck by the experiences of abuse and mistreatment by many elite athletes across Canada.
“Hearing all the stories about the athletes that have had bad experiences, whether it’s because they were maltreated, abused or harassed, I find it very, very devastating,” Ms. St-Onge said.
The revelations of abuse in sports – in gymnastics, synchronized swimming, bobsled and others – have been mounting over the past few years. Ms. St-Onge’s predecessors, Kirsty Duncan and Steven Guilbeault, had enacted reforms for the country’s national sport organizations (NSO). These included making it mandatory for all sport authorities to have a policy for addressing harassment, and giving the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada (SDRCC), an independent national body, the power to investigate allegations of abuse.
But further revelations of abuse and open letters to government agencies from athletes prompted Ms. St-Onge, who was made sport minister in October, to take stronger action on the issue than her mandate letter indicated initially.
In April, she announced the new role of Sport Integrity Commissioner, responsible for investigating allegations of maltreatment in Canadian sport. In June, she made it mandatory for all NSOs to sign on to the new office. Then in June, she froze Hockey Canada’s federal funding in light of their handling of sexual-assault allegations from 2018. (In April, Hockey Canada settled a $3.55-million lawsuit with a 24-year-old woman after she alleged that eight Canadian Hockey League players sexually assaulted her in a London, Ont., hotel room.)
Ms. St-Onge, whose role in cabinet also includes Minister Responsible for the Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec, wants to be a “change maker” in Canadian politics. She’s starting with the Canadian sport landscape, working to break the culture of silence surrounding abuse and to bring joy back to sports. “It can’t only be about performance,” she said during an interview with The Globe and Mail. “That’s something that the athletes have spoken about at since I started meeting with stakeholders.”
It’s a big undertaking for a rookie politician. Her first election campaign was last September, when she won her seat for the Liberal Party in the southern Quebec riding of Brome-Missisquoi by less than 200 votes.
Growing up, she was a swimmer at the provincial and national level from the age of six to 17, competing in the breast stroke for the Club Aquatique de Saint-Eustache. In her last year of high school, she started volleyball and went on to play at Laval University. She then finished her bachelor’s degree at the University of Quebec in Montreal. After that, she earned a certificate in journalism from the University of Montreal. Beyond being an athlete, she played the bass guitar in an indie-alternative rock band called Mad June for eight years.
She went on to be the secretary general and then president of the Fédération nationale des communications et de la culture in Montreal, where she represented members of the media, communications and culture sectors, working to develop policies with the government.
After 10 years, Ms. St-Onge was feeling ready to move on from the federation. Two weeks before the federal election campaign began in 2021, she received a call from Mélanie Joly, at that time the minister of economic development and official languages, and decided to run for the Liberals.
Much of what was acceptable in sports a few decades ago no longer is today, Ms. St-Onge said. “It wasn’t that clear when I was young, what was okay and what wasn’t, and I feel like we’ve moved forward quite a bit. There’s still a lot of work to do.”
On March 31, Ms. St-Onge held an emergency roundtable discussion in Ottawa with Canadian sport leaders and athletes to explore solutions to abuse in sport. Attendees included Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) chief executive officer David Shoemaker, Olympic and Paralympic athlete representatives, and Marie-Claude Asselin, the chief executive officer of the SDRCC.
Rosie MacLennan, a two-time Olympic gold medallist in trampoline, was present as the chair of the COC athlete commission. She is hopeful that the system will change, and was pleased to see the minister engaging athletes in the conversations. Since the roundtable, Ms. St-Onge and her office have held further meetings with athlete representatives, Ms. MacLennan said. “I do think it’s going to take more than the minister’s office to really activate and adjust these things. But I do feel engaged. I do feel the athletes are being heard.”
On June 12, Ms. St-Onge announced that Sport Canada will enact changes to its funding eligibility requirements, making it mandatory for NSOs to join the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner by April 1, 2023. This means that NSOs will be subject to an independent body when it comes to claims of abuse or maltreatment within their sport.
Ms. St-Onge also said she will be reviewing the entire funding system before April 2023.
Ms. MacLennan wants national sport organizations’ funding evaluations to look beyond performance and examine the well-being of athletes and sport staff. The minister’s review should ensure better accountability and hold NSOs to a certain “cultural orientation,” she said.
Canada Basketball is one of the NSOs that pledged early on to join the new sport integrity office. Chief executive officer Michael Bartlett said that the time is right in Canadian society to lean into these important conversations, and commended the minister for lighting “the fire on this.”
“With the minister clearly indicating a recognition that we can’t be in every room, but there must be a process to protect every room – or every gym or every rink or every tennis court – she’s identifying that this is a top, top, top priority for sports across the country,” Mr. Bartlett said.
Ms. St-Onge said its also important to recognize that abuse in sport is happening not only at elite and national levels, but that the provinces and club levels of sport need to take these issues just as seriously. She noted that one of her priorities will be to addresses these challenges with her provincial and territorial counterparts in order to really shift the culture throughout the whole sport system.
The safety of athletes should be at the forefront of decision making, she said, and athletes should be included in the process.
“We need to make room for those voices to be heard.”
Editor’s note: (July 15, 2022): A previous version of this story contained incorrect information about Pascale St-Onge’s education.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.