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Sports Ottawa hints at ‘third party’ to investigate sex abuse in Canadian amateur athletics

Minister of Science, Sport and Persons with Disabilities Kirsty Duncan speaks in the foyer of the House of Commons on June 19, 2018.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

There could be a major shift in the way sexual abuse and harassment cases are handled in Canadian amateur sport.

Kirsty Duncan, Canada’s Minister of Science and Sport, hinted Monday that an independent party might be implemented in the near future to investigate cases. Her comments come during a CBC investigation into abuse in amateur sport.

“We are working on a third party,” Duncan told The Canadian Press in a phone interview Monday.

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Safe sport has been governed through the Sport Canada Accountability Framework since it was implemented in 1996 in the wake of a sexual abuse scandal involving former junior hockey coach Graham James. National sport organizations must have a safe sport policy – and a designated individual to handle complaints – in place to receive government funding.

But in recent months and in light of a handful of high-profile cases in Canada, athletes and administrators – Olympic wrestling champion Erica Wiebe and Sheldon Kennedy, a retired NHL player and sex abuse victim among them – have publicly called for an independent party to handle cases.

Abuse, discrimination and harassment were among the topics of Duncan’s working group on gender equity, which was assembled shortly after she was appointed sport minister in January of 2018.

“The report has come forward, I will be addressing it, and you will see actions coming of their recommendations,” Duncan said.

The minister said a meeting is scheduled for this week in Red Deer, Alta., with representatives at the federal, provincial and territorial levels ahead of the 2019 Canada Winter Games, and that ending abuse and harassment in sport had already been a top priority.

A CBC investigation, published Sunday as the first of a three-part series, reported “at least 222 coaches” were convicted of sexual offences from 1998-2018. The report also said 34 other cases of accused coaches are currently before the courts.

“My heart goes out to all those who have been affected, and I have one goal: it’s to close the gap, to do the hard systemic cultural change and make this right going forward, to do everything we can to protect our athletes and kids,” said Duncan, a former gymnast and longtime coach. “I can’t say it enough, this is my top priority. One athlete, one child is too many.”

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Wiebe, who won gold at the 2018 Rio Olympics, was among a group of Canada wrestlers who appealed to Duncan in writing in December to establish an independent body to investigate harassment and abuse, claiming a conflict of interest and inconsistency in the current system had created an environment of fear and mistrust.

“Sometimes when you have a problem with your boss, it’s really awkward to go to your boss and complain about it,” Wiebe told The Canadian Press in December. “And so, if you’re having an issue with your coach, and your coach is employed by your CEO, we’ve seen it so many times where organizations are protecting the coaches, they’re protecting their employees rather than their athletes.

“So at times it doesn’t feel safe or comfortable for an athlete to come forward because we don’t want to put our goal, our lifelong dream of making an Olympic Games in jeopardy. Sometimes it’s this fear of keeping the status quo, rather than shifting the boat, because there’s been no independent body that we can go to and feel safe.”

Ashley LaBrie, the executive director of AthletesCAN, an athletes rights group, said there’s a concern that even with a third party, cases will slip through the cracks.

“Psychological abuse is rampant in high performance sport and where there is sexual abuse, you know there is psychological abuse. We can’t pick and choose what types of issues should be addressed by an independent body,” LaBrie said. “If there are issues of abuse, harassment, or discrimination no matter the severity — independent body should be the first stop, full stop.

“The system needs to recognize that athletes do not feel safe reporting much of anything directly to the organization that is responsible for their status as a national team athlete. That conflict of interest the current policies and procedures present, whether it is real or perceived — is creating fear in victims, of reporting, of retribution, of risking everything for something that was not even their fault in the first place.”

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Athletics Canada released a statement Monday applauding the CBC’s investigation.

“All members and participants need to trust the sport system with their safety,” the release said. “It should not matter what sport an athlete chooses, safety should be universally understood, expected and applied with no exceptions.”

While the sentencing of U.S. gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar last year might have been a watershed moment for sexual harassment and assault in sport, Canada has had its own high-profile cases. Marcel Aubut resigned as COC president in 2015 after an investigation over numerous sexual harassment complaints.

In June, several former members of Canada’s ski team spoke publicly about the abuse suffered at the hands of former coach Bertrand Charest in the 1990s. Charest was convicted last year of 37 offences of sexual assault and exploitation.

Former Canadian women’s gymnastics coach Dave Brubaker has pleaded not guilty to one count of sexual assault and one count of sexual exploitation, and Justice Deborah Austin is expected to deliver her decision on Wednesday.

Duncan applauded the CBC’s investigation, saying “I really think this is the power of the media to shine a light on a long-standing problem, a dirty secret in sport, and I made it my priority from Week 1 that I was going to address this long-standing problem of abuse, discrimination and harassment.”

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Meanwhile, former Olympic speedskater Isabelle Charest, Quebec’s Junior Education Minister and Minister for the Feminine Condition, believes there is plenty of important work ahead.

“I think it’s a problem. For me, one case is one too many,” she said. “So if we can find solutions to make sure that kids are playing in a safe and secure environment — ... that for me is a no-brainer. We have to work and find a solution.”

Charest feels there has been some progress.

“I think we are addressing the situation more (now) It was unacceptable then and tolerated sometimes and now it’s unacceptable and it’s not tolerated so I’m very happy about that,” she said.

Giuseppe Valiante contributed to this report.

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