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Canadian National Soccer Team players Sophie Schmidt, from left Janine Beckie, Christine Sinclair, and Quinn, prepare to appear before the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage in Ottawa on March 9.The Canadian Press

Prominent members of the national women’s soccer team took their governing body to task Thursday in a high-profile hearing in Ottawa, where the players expressed frustration over their long fight to achieve gender equality in the sport, amid a “culture of secrecy and obstruction” at Canada Soccer, which they say has left them negotiating in the dark.

Christine Sinclair, who is widely regarding as the face of soccer in Canada, told a House committee there’s been a concerted lack of respect from the national sport organization, even as the sixth-ranked team prepares for the FIFA Women’s World Cup this summer – on the heels of its gold-medal win at the 2021 Olympics.

Just hours before the players’ testimony, Canada Soccer released a statement outlining its proposed collective bargaining agreement, which is meant to achieve pay equity. The players called the last-minute announcement – after the organization insisted it would not negotiate in public – another example of the federation’s disrespect, and marked the first time they heard of some of its content.

Sinclair said that last year, after outlining the team’s compensation ask on behalf of the team, then-Canada Soccer president Nick Bontis later responded, “What was it Christine was bitching about?” Sinclair said she’d never been “more insulted.” Bontis stepped down in late February.

The committee’s MPs, whose inquiry into Hockey Canada last year led to the resignations of the organization’s chief executive and board of directors, expressed widespread disappointment in Canada Soccer. They lauded the women’s team’s successes, which also include bronze medals at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, and cited their role inspiring girls across Canada to take to the soccer pitch.

Players Janine Beckie, Sophie Schmidt and Quinn, who goes by one name, also testified about the difficulty of learning, in 2021, that men’s national team players were earning more than five times more than them – and had received more robust support.

“We kick the same size ball, we play on the same size field, we play for the same amount of minutes. We are doing the same work as our male counterparts,” said Beckie, who emphasized their ask is not just for them, but also their youth teams.

The committee invited the players to testify after they briefly went on strike last month, raising issues with recent cuts to their funding ahead of the World Cup. But the players have been clear: Player compensation is just one small part of what they’re seeking. They want the same level of resources and support as the men had in the leadup to their World Cup in Qatar last year. Later this month, the committee expects to hear from Canada Soccer executives, including Bontis.

Both the women’s and men’s teams have called for Canada Soccer to address their concerns around its transparency and governance. They’ve called for the organization to open its books – and for clarity around its agreement with Canadian Soccer Business, a private company that brokers its sponsorship and broadcast deals. And while the women’s team struck an interim deal last week with Canada Soccer on compensation it was owed for 2022, it remains without a collective agreement for this year and beyond.

In its statement Thursday, Canada Soccer revealed details of its proposed collective bargaining agreement with both the men’s and women’s national teams, which would see both earn the same amount for playing a 90-minute match and share equally in pooled competition prize money.

The organization claims that this proposed deal would make its women the second-highest paid women’s national team among FIFA’s 211 member associations.

“It is time to get a deal done,” said Canada Soccer’s general secretary Earl Cochrane in the statement. “We’ve been negotiating in good faith and want to get to a resolution with our national teams.”

Beckie told the committee the players feel Canada Soccer should not have released that statement.

“We feel quite disrespected by the way they went about their business this afternoon,” she said, adding that they believe what had been discussed in bargaining should have stayed behind closed doors, until that agreement was actually signed.

Beckie added that there were terms and numbers in that statement that had not yet been communicated to them. Sinclair also told reporters there are specific asks from their team which Canada Soccer has “chosen to ignore,” including in its statement.

Asked if Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge had reached out, Quinn said that her office had asked what would be helpful to the team. Conservative MP Kevin Waugh picked up on this, remarking: “What would be ‘helpful?’ Equity! What the hell! I mean that’s a pretty simple ask, isn’t it? It’s 2023 today. You’ve made the sport what it is in this country.”

Quinn said that in those talks the possibility of a financial audit of Canada Soccer was raised, which the midfielder said would be “hugely important” in terms of transparency. Quinn said the idea was put on hold, following concern from the players about potentially running afoul of FIFA, which has rules about political interference in national soccer federations and has sanctioned nations before.

When asked by Liberal MP Anthony Housefather whether anyone tried to discourage the players from testifying before the committee, Quinn said that Canada Soccer raised a concern about FIFA’s non-interference rules.

Housefather told The Globe and Mail that any suggestion from Canada Soccer that the players not testify is “inappropriate,” adding, “I was very disappointed that Canada Soccer would have done such a thing.”

The players also expressed concern with Canada Soccer’s new leadership. After Bontis stepped down, Charmaine Crooks, who was previously the organization’s vice-president, took over as acting president.

Sinclair said that during Crooks’s prior tenure, she did not appear to be fighting for the women’s team and pointed out that Crooks has not reached out since taking on the new role. Her first action involving their team was to release Thursday’s unexpected statement, Sinclair added.

In its Thursday statement, Canada Soccer claimed it is addressing all nine demands made by the women on Feb. 9, before they briefly went on strike in Florida ahead of the SheBelieves Cup.

That list includes financial concerns such as: a budget for the 2023 Women’s World Cup that compares to the men’s World Cup preparations; the disclosing of detailed budget information for both teams; and a 2023 pay agreement for the women signed before the players next convene for their April camp. The list also included things such as friends and family travel, individual hotel rooms at 2023 camps and a game in Canada before they depart.

The release also said Canada Soccer is in conversations with Canadian Soccer Business to amend its agreement. (A spokesperson for CSB reiterated this sentiment to The Globe Thursday, and said its leadership met with representatives of the women’s national team in July, 2022, to discuss the deal, including its financials.)

The players testified about their frustration over this deal, which they called confusing – and one that caps Canada Soccer’s ability to capitalize on broadcast and sponsorship deals because it pays the soccer body a flat fee yearly, no matter how much that third party takes in from those deals.

“We don’t understand why members of the board would approve a deal like this, knowing that it puts a ceiling on the amount of revenue that can come in from sponsors and broadcast,” Beckie said.