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Former Canadian Women’s National Soccer Team Player and Assistant Coach Andrea Neil (left) and whistleblower and Professional Soccer Player Ciara McCormack are seen after appearing at the Heritage Committee looking into Canadian sport on April 24, in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Elite female athletes from soccer, boxing and fencing have called on the Sport Minister to urgently set up a public inquiry into abuse in Canadian sports, warning further delays would lead to more athletes being harmed.

In emotional testimony Monday, they told a committee of MPs about their own experience with abuse and victimization, saying formal protection for whistle-blowers is needed so athletes don’t face reprisals for speaking out.

Some outlined how their own sporting careers and mental health had suffered after exposing misconduct, including sexual abuse, by coaches.

Ciara McCormack, a former professional soccer player, said she now lives abroad since she did not feel safe to stay in Canada “because of the truth that I have shared” about Bob Birarda, a former Team Canada and Vancouver Whitecaps coach.

Mr. Birarda was sentenced last year to two years in prison for sexual assault against teenaged players in British Columbia.

Ms. McCormack said she and others spent a decade trying to report Mr. Birarda, but faced silencing “done with willful precision.”

Fighting back tears, she told MPs that playing sports in Canada “means doing so with a deliberate lack of protection from abuse, as well as the threat of retaliation” for speaking out. “I can’t help but ask myself, how many more stories will it take for those of you in government to demand a national inquiry and implement real change?”

She questioned whether Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge “is even watching.”

Ms. McCormack said decorated soccer players who had protested against an abusive environment were thrown off the Canadian women’s team, never representing their country again.

“I bet you believe the heroes in Canadian soccer from the last three decades were those scoring goals and winning medals,” she said. “But I’m here to tell you that the players that deserve your admiration are the ones you’ve never heard of – the ones who took a brave stance against abusive coaches and administrators with no protection and lost everything.”

Her testimony was part of the heritage committee’s study into the safety of sports in Canada.

Andrea Neil, a former captain of the women’s soccer team who played for Canada in four World Cups and helped coach a fifth, said some coaching staff had been punished if they reported wrongdoing to higher authorities.

She said people who tried to address problems had also been silenced through non-disclosure agreements. “This toxic and authoritarian culture needs to end,” she said.

MPs were visibly moved by the witnesses, and shocked by their stories of abuse, thanking them for their bravery in speaking out.

Emily Mason, a former Canadian team fencer and founder of Fencing for Change, said she had been exposed to abuse while being coached in Vancouver, including as a child.

She said “there had been a culture of toxicity, bullying and abuse pervasive in Canadian fencing for decades.”

“I think it’s imperative that there is an investigation, a public investigation called as soon as possible. How many more voices do we need to hear before the minister takes action?” she asked.

Former Olympic boxer Myriam Da Silva Rondeau said she faced isolation and exclusion after making a complaint, leading to her mental health suffering and being placed on sick leave.

“When myself and a teammate made a complaint to the federation and the high-performance director it took barely 24 hours before we were targeted by coaching staff and athletes,” she said.

In an emotional plea for action from the federal government, Ms. Da Silva Rondeau explained that the abuse had caused her to dissociate so severely that she can’t recall both her qualification and participation in the Olympics.

“I cannot recall the best souvenir of my life,” she said through tears.

Speaking after the hearing, Ms. St-Onge said the courage of the witnesses was “unbelievable and I really thank them for sharing their stories.”

The minister told reporters she would make an announcement on the next steps soon, saying it was not “a matter of if we were going to do something – an investigation. It was a matter of what and how.”

Ms. Neil said with Canada set to play co-host to the next men’s World Cup in 2026, “it behooves us to pay attention.”

She noted that two men who led Canada Soccer while Mr. Birarda worked under the auspices of the federation have since ascended to the global soccer establishment.

“It should alarm our country that the same men, Victor Montagliani and Peter Montopoli, who have done such a deleterious job of running Canada Soccer, are now in positions to oversee our country’s hosting of the 2026 World Cup,” she said.

Mr. Montagliani served as Canada Soccer’s president for five years and is now a vice-president of the International Association Football Federation, known by its French acronym FIFA. He is also the president of CONCACAF, the continental soccer federation that includes North and Central America and the Caribbean.

Mr. Montopoli stepped down as Canada Soccer’s general-secretary at the end of 2021 to become the chief operating officer of Canada’s FIFA World Cup 2026 host committee.

With a report from Simon Houpt.

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