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opinion

Kim Shore is a former gymnast, the mother of a former gymnast, a former board member of Gymnastics Canada, and the co-founder of Gymnasts for Change Canada.

When Gymnasts for Change Canada came forward in 2022 with hundreds of stories of abuse, we thought gymnastics was the bad apple of Canadian sport. We were wrong. The entire barrel appears to be rotten.

For the past 18 months, courageous athletes, academics and allies – people who are unwilling to accept sport in its toxic state and driven to prevent the maltreatment of future athletes – have worked tirelessly to reveal the truth about sport in Canada. Each survivor who has come forward has paved the way for the next, sharing heartbreaking stories of abuse and its devastating outcomes: addiction, self-harm, suicide, eating disorders, chronic pain, depression, anxiety and lifelong injuries. They have made it clear that many of the spaces our young people go to learn, grow and have fun are plagued with deplorable behaviour on the part of coaches and sport leaders in pursuit of shiny medals and podium finishes, as if they justify the human cost.

Had it not been for athletes’ bravery, journalists’ relentless reporting, thousands of social media posts by allies, dozens of open letters and two parliamentary committee studies on safe sport, this crisis would not have come to light.

We also assumed government and sport leaders would act quickly to eradicate the culture of cruelty the moment it was exposed. Again, we were wrong.

Multiple groups of Canadians have called for a national inquiry, under part one of the Inquiries Act. But rather than launch an inquiry to diagnose and address these critical issues head-on, our government continues to double down on the notion that sport is inherently good and healthy. In the face of an avalanche of damning testimony from athlete survivors, successive sport ministers have used photo-ops with athletes to maintain the façade that “all is well” in sport and regurgitate ineffective Band-Aid solutions.

Government intervention is necessary because, over the years, the sport system has been permitted to police itself, often granting unchecked power to sport leaders with zero accountability to the athletes they are supposed to be protecting. It is painfully apparent that we, in fact, do not yet know everything we need to about why and how abuse is occurring, or what is going on behind closed doors; following its 2019 investigation, the CBC reported in January that at least 83 more coaches in 16 different amateur sports have been charged with sexual offences over the past four years. Launching an inquiry would allow us to go much deeper.

Meanwhile, complex and burdensome complaint processes, such as those of the new Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner, apply confidentiality clauses that silence victims, while tasking for-profit companies, which are meant to be third-party but are often paid by the sport organizations themselves, with managing the complaints. This is reactionary, not preventative, and requires many months if not years of diligent engagement by the victim to see the complaint through. At all levels, from club to government, the modus operandi is to deny, delay, prolong or dismiss allegations of abuse.

Survivors have exposed racism, violence, maltreatment and inequity that have been embedded in Canadian sport for decades, but those with the power to remedy the rotting system appear to have settled in to wait out the storm. Sport Minister Carla Qualtrough has politely met with select athletes and advocates, as if checking the “you’ve been heard” box, but she has not sufficiently engaged with dissenting advocates to understand the call for a national inquiry, or generated a meaningful alternative.

Doing nothing may have been an effective strategy historically. But now, survivors have found their voices; athletes have found their power. Every Canadian raised to believe that sport is unquestionably good should join them in outrage, too. While the testimonies of prominent national athletes have captured attention, 99 per cent of young Canadians play at the local grassroots level, which lacks oversight and resources.

So this is a call to action. Every elected official, both federal and provincial, needs to understand that this is not simply a sports issue: this is a child abuse and human rights issue that affects their constituents at large.

The day of reckoning for Canadian sport cannot be put off much longer, and those who choose to prolong it, do so at the peril of innocent children and athletes trapped in an archaic system. Those of us harmed by the Canadian sport system have a vision to prevent abuse, platforms to amplify our messages and allies to support us. And we are not going anywhere until the next generation of Canadian athletes is safe.

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