Canada’s national sports organizations will have less than a year to meet new standards for governance, accountability and safer sport practices if they want to receive government funding, Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge said on Sunday.
Speaking after meetings with the Canadian Olympic Committee, the Canadian Paralympic Committee, and athletes’ groups, Ms. St-Onge told reporters that new governance standards will be formulated in the coming months and become effective by April next year.
The move to raise accountability across Canadian sport follows a spate of allegations of physical, psychological and sexual abuse inside multiple National Sports Organizations (NSOs).
Hundreds of athletes in sports ranging from synchronized swimming, gymnastics, bobsled and skeleton, to boxing have spoken out, calling for coaches and administrators to be punished, and for investigations into toxic cultures and abusive practices within their sport.
“We’ve all been witness to allegations by athletes these last months,” Ms. St-Onge said. “We shouldn’t be afraid of what athletes have to say. Every time that something comes out, it’s an opportunity to make changes and to be better, and to ensure safety and bring the trust back in the system.”
In April, the government named former synchronized swimmer Sarah-Ève Pelletier to the newly created role of Sport Integrity Commissioner, where she will oversee the launch of an office that will handle independent investigations into allegations of abuse and maltreatment. Sports organizations will have until April, 2023, to submit to the new independent investigations or lose funding.
The office received $16-million over the next three years in the federal budget. However, as Ms. Pelletier prepares to begin operating next week, athletes fear a backlog of cases at the outset.
“It’s a concern that a lot of athletes have,” said Erin Willson, president of AthletesCAN, which represents national team members.
In addition to probing individual allegations of abuse, Ms. Willson said athletes also want the office to examine broader systemic issues within some sports. “A lot of what’s happening isn’t a case-by-case basis, it is a lot of toxic cultures that have been created,” she said. “It’s not a single athlete and a single perpetrator.”
Athletes have also raised concerns about non-disparagement clauses some are asked to sign, especially when they are young, which prevent them from speaking up about serious problems or abuse in their sport. Ms. St-Onge said last week that such agreements contradict the principle of safe sport.
Asked on Sunday whether she would do away with those clauses in athlete contracts, Ms. St-Onge said it will become part of talks with the sports organizations over their funding.
“For sure that’s going to be part of the conversation,” she said.
However, Ms. St-Onge wasn’t sure how such talks would affect national team athletes already bound to such agreements.
“That’s quite a complicated legal question, because some of the athletes have signed those contracts,” she said. “I think it’s clear that we need to make sure that the athletes are free to speak out.”
Canada’s more than 60 NSOs are autonomously run organizations. However, Ottawa can impose requirements on how they operate by attaching conditions to the money they receive, or by pulling those funds if Sport Canada disapproves of how they operate.
The government has been conducting meetings with athletes, NSOs and the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic committees this year in an effort to address the allegations brought forward by hundreds of athletes. Among its responses was the creation of an athlete advisory committee at Sport Canada.
Ms. Willson said the new committee gives athletes a seat at the table in discussions on how to develop a better system. She said some of the changes being introduced now, such as the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner and the independent investigations into athlete complaints, could have prevented past problems.
“I think this is something that would have been helpful 10 or 15 years ago, but it’s great that we’re finally at a place where we can at least start,” Ms. Willson said. “I think there’s still a lot more that needs to be done.”
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