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opinion

Kirsty Duncan is the MP for Etobicoke North. She previously served as Minister of Science and Sport.

As an athlete, coach, and judge, I have devoted my life to protecting children involved in sports. I don’t want others to go through what I’ve gone through: As a child, I witnessed drunk, naked, gymnastics camp counsellors “partying” with adult coaches. I was frightened and shocked. It was so wrong. And I know personally what it feels like to be told to eat Jell-O, laxatives, toilet paper, and water pills to “make weight,” and to be repeatedly verbally abused by other coaches, judges, and parents.

When I was asked to serve as Minister of Sport, I made it clear to officials from the outset that my priority was “safe sport” because organizations, coaches, judges, and others involved in the system had failed to protect young people.

I insisted that national sport organizations have a safe sport policy, make provisions for access to a third-party investigator, and report any incident of wrongdoing. I worked with my counterparts across the country to deliver the Red Deer Declaration and ensure we all were working to eliminate abuse, discrimination, and harassment from the club level up to the Olympic and Paralympic levels. My office and I also worked to create the Canadian Sport Helpline, a pilot project for a third-party investigative unit, led the development of a coaching code of conduct, and invested funds in training and prevention of abuse.

I also made it very clear to Hockey Canada and every other national sport organization that they have a duty of care. That means no willful blindness, no turning away, no excuses for administrators, coaches, athletes, and referees not hearing or seeing what goes on. And a responsibility to act when they see, hear or witness something.

I also made it clear to Sport Canada that the system would only change if federal funding was tied to proven efforts on equity and diversity, and ending abuse, discrimination, and harassment. The data from the Sport Helpline and the third-party investigative unit would be used to inform further protective action.

A sport-by-sport reckoning is required, and the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage should be asking specific questions on what actions were or were not taken between 2019 and 2022.

Sheldon Kennedy bravely came forward almost 30 years ago with revelations of years of sexual abuse at the hands of his hockey coach. We learned this week how many more cases of abuse, discrimination and sexual assault followed.

I was not informed of the alleged 2018 sexual assault of a young women by multiple hockey players, and my heart goes out to this woman. I cannot imagine the horror she sees every time she closes her eyes.

Radical change is needed, and I have zero confidence in Hockey Canada’s leadership. When the spotlight was on safe sport – and let me be clear, safe sport should be the daily, primary focus – the organization failed to change, and is now promising action only after the alleged assault was brought to light by the media. No sport, no organization, no one is above the law.

The days of after-the-fact apologies must end. Canadians deserve a comprehensive action plan, reviewed and strengthened by experts, and not one cobbled together before an appearance at a parliamentary committee. At an absolute minimum, Hockey Canada needs to bring in experts, and an external, independent gender audit of the organization must be done. It needs to hear from women what it feels like to be leered at, whistled at, groped or worse, only to have this be dismissed as “boys will be boys” and “locker room talk.”

How can Hockey Canada fail to see, over and over, the concussions, the alcohol and drug abuse, the discrimination, harassment, and sexual assault? How can they fail to see patterns that have played out over years?

Sport is for the enjoyment of all Canadians – athletes, coaches, families, fans. And it starts with a safe environment for all, and not a secret fund, an alternative process and hush money.

It’s past time for Hockey Canada to step up. The organization must teach each athletes, coaches, and referees to stop abuse, discrimination, and harassment, and show them what it means to be an ambassador for the sport they love.

If Hockey Canada wants to truly make amends, it’s high time to do the hard work and take the right decisions, in a transparent, accountable manner that will lead to meaningful change. This must be done today, not tomorrow. And if the organization’s current leadership is not capable, it is time to bring in new leaders who are.

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