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Karen Paquin of Team Canada takes on the defence in the Women's Placing 9-12 match between Team Canada and Team Brazil during the Rugby Sevens on day seven of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Stadium on July 30, 2021 in Chofu, Tokyo, Japan.

Dan Mullan/Getty Images AsiaPac

The head of Rugby Canada says he did not know that female players felt they were being bullied and harassed. But now that two top coaches have left – John Tait pushed to resign in April, Jamie Cudmore fired last Friday – Rugby Canada chief executive officer Allen Vansen said he believes his organization has removed everyone that needs to be removed.

Vansen would not commit to targets for the representation of women or minorities in Rugby Canada, nor will he make public the results of an investigation into Tait.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Vansen said the turmoil around Tait’s departure may have contributed to the disappointing ninth-place finish for the Canadian rugby women’s sevens on Saturday. The team won bronze in 2016 and was expected to at least equal that outcome in Tokyo.

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“This team didn’t perform to its capabilities. There’s no question,” Vansen said, adding: “We have to look at the role that the complaint and the investigation and everything that happened there – how that played into this.”

In normal circumstances, he added, the organization would seek continuity in coaching, particularly before a marquee event such as the Olympics.

But little has been normal for a rugby program that has been an outlier at an Olympics where Canadian women have, so far, won all but one of Canada’s medals and largely performed as expected.

Late last November, the Canadian women’s team complained to Rugby Canada, describing a training environment tainted by, they said, psychological abuse, harassment and bullying. The complaint led Rugby Canada to put Tait on administrative leave and begin mediation. When that failed, it called an independent investigation, which found that Tait had not violated the policies in place. Rugby Canada, however, said “it would not be viable” for him to continue. Tait resigned, but has said he did nothing wrong.

The tensions made the women’s team outspoken advocates for the treatment of women in sport, an issue that has become central at the Tokyo Olympics – including when Cudmore posted a series of Twitter messages celebrating the women’s Friday loss to France. Cudmore, a friend of Tait, was in charge of developing the next generation of talent for Rugby Canada.

From harassment to mental health, female athletes at the Tokyo Olympics bring important issues to the forefront

The next day, the organization fired him.

Cudmore’s tweets were “harmful and disparaging to our team. It’s insulting to the players,” Vansen said. “We can’t tolerate that at all.”

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Cudmore was not part of the complaint made last fall, he said.

Rugby Canada has promised a review that will make recommendations on how to restructure the organization, including whether to hire new coaches or other support staff. The review should begin this month.

Vansen said he is confident that with Tait and Cudmore gone, Rugby Canada will not need to remove any more people.

“I don’t believe there are any other individuals in the organization that were involved in this,” he said.

As Rugby Canada hires new people, it wants “greater diversity in every aspect within our organization,” Vansen said – although there are no specific targets for what that representation should look like.

He said he did not know about any problems before the women made their complaint, which was signed by 37 past and present team members.

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“We were surprised, quite frankly, when the players detailed their concerns,” he said. Still, he repeated the findings of the investigation, which concluded that Tait had not violated policies.

“We have to do a better job of listening to our players,” he said.

But “that’s not to say that it’s all what the players say, what their perspective is. Because there is most definitely an element of coaches needing to have, and performance staff needing to put in place, that right structure and high-performance environment,” he said.

Tait has called for Rugby Canada to make public the results of the investigation, which would shed light on the details of the conduct that led to his departure.

The organization has no plans to do so, Vansen said.

It would not be fair to “the players or the respondent in this case, John, to release that information,” he said. It wouldn’t be helpful to have “thousands of people read that and make their own determination,” he said.

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He expressed optimism that the past year has not sullied the image of women’s rugby in Canada.

“I think our women have proven themselves to be fantastic role models as elite athletes,” he said. And “off the pitch, we’ve seen them be very vocal and very strong leaders in their community.”

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