Kirsty Duncan is a member of Parliament who previously served as the federal minister of sport.
In the world of Canadian sports, 2022 will forever be known as the year that many heartbreaking, sad and sordid secrets came to wide public attention. That only happened because courageous athletes shared their stories of being let down and, in many cases, suffering harm at the hands of the people who were supposed to protect them. Athletes from gymnastics, cycling, soccer and other sports testified before parliamentary committees and shared their heartbreaking stories with the media, culminating in a resounding call for a national public inquiry into safe sport in Canada.
This call continues to grow louder and isn’t going away, but some leaders continue to be divided on whether a public inquiry is indeed the best way forward. Meanwhile, it was reported last month that another gymnastics coach has been charged with numerous counts of sexual assault and other sexual offences involving seven young girls in Ottawa and Kingston.
The federal government has provided a litany of reasons why an inquiry is not possible, including that it would take too long. It took less than two weeks for the Mulroney government to launch an inquiry after Canada was embarrassed on the world stage by Ben Johnson’s positive doping result after winning the 100-metre race at the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics. That inquiry began in January, 1989, and the late Charles Dubin, then the chief justice of Ontario’s appeals court, released his report about 18 months later.
Today, there have been 10 months of sustained focus on an egregious lack of commitment to athlete health, safety and well-being, and yet there remains the refusal to do the right thing and put the wheels in motion for an inquiry that would examine the Canadian sport system on all levels. The federal government has claimed it has no jurisdiction, and most recently claimed to be “open to all recommendations,” but has not yet committed to a national inquiry.
This is the time for leadership. We’re seeing it from athletes and from brave sport leaders who are taking a stand. But we need to be seeing it from everyone. Leadership involves a willingness to face uncomfortable truths. It also means facing the fact that the system is outdated and in desperate need of revamping when it comes to safe sport, funding and governance. Without a national inquiry, our approach to resolving harm against athletes will remain focused on symbolic compliance, avoiding legal liability, and protecting reputations and legacies.
Survivors must be fully empowered to speak their truths should they so choose, and any attempts to silence them must be vigorously investigated and halted. Passive enablers in places of power can be as harmful as the perpetrators themselves.
Very specific information needs to be revealed. How many cases of abuse, harassment and sexual assault occur across Canadian sports each year? Have the number of cases been increasing or decreasing? Where are the records? Were cases being adequately and effectively addressed, and the satisfaction of complainants and defendants measured over time? Who was in charge, what was reported, and to whom? How many athletes, families, coaches and support staff are undergoing yearly training to make our sports safer? Were there repeat offenders? How were they dealt with? Were they removed from the system or instead moved around because they got winning results? How much damage did management-level enablers do by failing to act?
What were the emotional, physical and psychosocial consequences that followed an athlete’s career or achievements in other sports? A successful athletic career should not require years of therapy to undo the harm done to children and young people.
Real leaders don’t announce that we should be listening to athletes while simultaneously saying that a public inquiry into safety in Canadian sports is not the right path, even though it’s what many athletes and close to 100 academics across the country are requesting.
Leaders don’t slow down safe-sport conversations or limit the scope of inquiry into abuse to just a few sports. Gymnastics and hockey have received the most attention, but abuse cuts across sports, and we have heard and read about these horrific stories in the media for decades.
It’s time for some sports leaders to stop running for the hills and to stop attempting to rewrite history and their contributions to it. Many have placed the prevention of having their own records investigated ahead of doing what’s right.
There is only one thing that matters, and that is protecting children. We need leaders who show up to be part of that fight. We can no longer make room for those who continue to defend the status quo in a system that has failed athletes for decades – and continues to do so.