Four members of the national women’s soccer team will testify Thursday in Ottawa, where parliamentarians are holding hearings into allegations of unequal treatment between the national men’s and women’s squads by Canada Soccer.
Christine Sinclair, Janine Beckie, Quinn and Sophie Schmidt, all members of Canada’s gold medal-winning squad at the Tokyo Olympics, will appear before the standing committee on Canadian heritage, which wants to probe Canada Soccer’s finances in order to understand the labour impasse between the national sports body and its men’s and women’s national teams.
It’s the beginning of Ottawa’s efforts to draw out information about the players’ long-standing rift with their national federation, a divide that has grown intensely public just months out from the Women’s World Cup, and recently compelled the women to strike for one day last month.
Gender equality and issues of transparency will be under the microscope as members of Parliament question the women’s team first, and then Canada Soccer later this month.
The players claim their federation isn’t financially transparent, which leaves them to negotiate player contracts in the dark. They’ve requested the same resources while training to play for this summer’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand that the men got in preparation for their World Cup last year in Qatar. Yet the federation has slashed the budgets of both teams, leaving the women to ask why now, with their most important tournament fast approaching?
“We want to hear from the women’s team about what they’ve had access to, and what they haven’t, and then ask Canada Soccer about it as well,” said Liberal MP Anthony Housefather. “One of the main things we’re looking at is, are our sporting national federations being accountable enough, and transparent enough, with membership?”
This is the same committee that questioned Hockey Canada executives last summer about that organization’s handling of sexual-assault allegations involving members of its 2018 world junior team. It led to resignations across the top of that federation.
The committee is studying governance and transparency inside Canada’s national sport organizations, by requesting key documents from some bodies, and compelling their athletes and executives to answer questions in Ottawa.
The committee plans to produce a report.
“I think the national standards for accountability and transparency to me would be one of the most important things we put in that report,” Housefather said. “What should the minimum standards be to receive any government money?”
Thursday’s hearing comes amidst a turbulent month for soccer in Canada. The women’s team announced on Feb. 10 that it was going on strike at the SheBelieves Cup in Orlando, before Canada Soccer swiftly threatened legal action that forced the players back onto the pitch.
The federation appeared willing to sue its own players, putting the world’s No. 6-ranked team in the position to play under protest or shell out perhaps millions of dollars in damages.
Unwilling to take that financial risk, the players returned to the field. But they wore purple T-shirts over their red Canada uniforms during pre-game warmups and anthems, scrawled with white handwriting that read ‘ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.’ Their opponents wore purple tape on their wrists in support. Their archrivals from the U.S. circled up at midfield before one game and locked arms with the Canadians.
Last week, the women and Canada Soccer agreed to an interim deal on compensation they were owed for 2022. They’re still negotiating a deal going forward. Proper funding for the women’s national team for 2023, and for the youth national program, are atop their list of demands.
“We need to listen to the women’s team – I want to ask what the training is like. … There are obviously strong feelings between the two groups so let’s see if it’s repairable,” said Conservative MP Kevin Waugh. “For me, it’s all about being equal. … They’ve got to prepare for Australia and New Zealand, and we’re putting up roadblocks for our most famous team in this country? There are so many young girls of women going into soccer because of this team and we should not be shortchanging them.”
That interim deal is separate from the overarching collective agreement, which has been in negotiation for months, between both national teams and Canada Soccer, which has promised to deliver pay equity. How FIFA prize money is shared – including the US$9-million earned by Canada’s men at the World Cup in Qatar – is key in settling that.
The players want more disclosure about Canada’s Soccer’s team spending, and its agreement with Canadian Soccer Business, a private company that brokers its sponsorship and broadcast deals. In exchange, CSB pays Canada Soccer a set fee each year and keeps the rest, which helps fund the Canadian Premier League.
Canada Soccer sponsor offers financial support to resolve dispute with women’s team
The committee plans to probe Canada Soccer about its financials, including details of its deal with CSB, and has requested a copy of the contract. The committee also asked for minutes from meetings held by Canada Soccer’s board of directors, dating back to 2017, a time when it would have been discussing that deal.
The CSB deal angers players from both national teams, who say it limits the organization’s ability to capitalize at a time when the teams have never been more popular. According to the contract, a copy of which was obtained by The Globe and Mail, CSB pays Canada Soccer a guaranteed annual fee, starting with a $3-million payment in 2019 and increasing each year, topping out at $3.5-million in 2027.
In a second meeting scheduled for later this month, the Heritage committee has invited people from Canada Soccer to testify, including Nick Bontis, even though he recently stepped down as president amidst calls from the national teams and provincial soccer leaders demanding his resignation. The committee gave Canada Soccer until March 15 to confirm who will testify.
The players expressed reservations about the new acting president Canada Soccer appointed last week, five-time Olympic track star and businesswoman Charmaine Crooks, who was a vice-president under Bontis when the board approved the CSB deal. The women said while admiring Crooks as an athlete and Canadian, “she represents the ‘old guard’ on the board.”
“She has always appeared to the players to be closely allied with Nick Bontis,” wrote the women’s players’ association in a statement. “Unfortunately, in the decade she has spent on the board, the players have seen nothing to suggest that she was working to promote the women’s national team’s interests.”
Waugh hopes Canada Soccer’s board does its due diligence before selecting a permanent president.
“That leader will steer the program into the most ambitious time the sport has ever had in this country, now and heading into the World Cup here in 2026,” he said. “What is their vision for soccer in this country? It will be the No. 1 sport by then, if it isn’t already.”
Peter Julian, an NDP MP, called the women’s team a point of pride for all Canadians.
“Canada Soccer should have reflected that – in ending the discrimination against the team,” he said.
Julian said his NDP colleague, MP Bonita Zarrillo, will fill in for him on Thursday, and plans to ask players how it feels to be discriminated against, while playing for one of the world’s best teams.
He said the committee is set to press Canada Soccer’s management, later this month, on the organization’s financial arrangements – as it did with Hockey Canada.
“Canada Soccer would be well advised to come fully prepared and ready to answer those questions in a fulsome way,” he added. “And not to stonewall the committee.”
With files from Marsha McLeod