Demands continue for inquiry as Canada's sport minister unveils safe sport reforms

·4 min read

OTTAWA — Canada's sport minister has announced a slate of reforms to address the safe sport crisis, but former athletes and opposition politicians are reiterating demands for a national inquiry to be held.

Pascale St-Onge unveiled measures to make national sports organizations more accountable for the federal funding they receive.

A public registry of people who have been sanctioned or suspended within the sport system, restricting the use of non-disclosure agreements, making financial statements public and changing the makeup of boards of directors were among measures announced.

The recent avalanche of athlete complaints about maltreatment and abuse, including sexual abuse, in their sports threw Canadian sport into crisis.

Tearful athletes across several sports have testified at parliamentary committee hearings in Ottawa about the abuse and harassment they experienced from coaches and other team personnel, how those in power turned a blind eye to it, and their fear of repercussions if they complained.

"I would like to reiterate my commitment and clear any doubts that may remain. I will respond to the requests from athletes and survivors for a national inquiry. This is a legitimate request and I'm working to be able to announce this as soon as I can," St-Onge said.

AthletesCAN, the association of Canada’s national team athletes, the Canadian Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission and the Canadian Paralympic Committee Athletes’ Council said they're pleased with the move from the federal government.

"Although the sport system is not perfect yet and there is still a considerable amount of work to do, we are grateful for her continued engagement of the athlete community and the impact these collaborative consultations over the last several years will have in the ongoing efforts to affect change," they said in a statement.

But the announcement and lack of national inquiry has been characterized by others as doing little to help.

"The measures put forward by the Minister are not the foundations upon which safe sport in Canada can be built. Without understanding the depths of the human rights issue at hand, the injection of funding will not adequately address the problems," said the Coalition Against Abuse In Sport in a statement.

Amelia Cline, a former gymnast and co-founder of Gymnasts for Change Canada, told The Canadian Press that the funding isn't enough.

"You can't tinker with a broken system and that's what this is. We know that the sport system generally is in shambles, it's an abusive system that is causing athletes harm every single day," she said.

Former sports minister Kirsty Duncan told The Canadian Press a systemic approach to ensuring safe sports in Canada is needed.

"We need to do the hard work of a national inquiry," she said. "I really believe, clearly, the time is now for a national inquiry."

There has been a change in the perspective of Canadians when it comes to safe sport in the last year, Duncan said, adding that she thinks there is a groundswell of support for a national inquiry.

She said the funding is a good step forward but more needs to be done from the federal government and questioned the delay in holding a national inquiry.

"This has been a long-hidden dirty secret. It was hidden for decades," she said about abuse in sports. "We just can't afford to let this moment pass. We can't afford to fail our kids."

Within weeks of St-Onge taking on the sport portfolio in October 2021, she was faced with what she called a safe sport crisis.

Accusations of maltreatment, sexual abuse or misuse of funds were aimed at least eight national sport organization in her first five months in office.

The Canadian taxpayer is the largest investor in high-performance sport at over $200 million annually.

Athletes continue to testify for, and sport executives continue to be grilled by, members of Parliament in Ottawa.

New Democrat MP Peter Julian, who is part of a parliamentary committee investigating safe sport, said in a statement that the funding doesn't help those who have experienced abuse in sports.

Canada Soccer was among the latest called on the carpet as athletes from the women's team spoke of both financial mismanagement of their program and the handling of a coach convicted of sexual assault.

St-Onge has been asked to use her funding powers to punish federations for allowing a culture of abuse, and force change within the culture.

She suspended Hockey Canada's funding last year and restored it last month.

St-Onge also froze Gymnastics Canada's money until it became an signatory to the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner (OSIC), which the organization did in October.

The minister said earlier this month an audit of Canada Soccer was a possibility.

St-Onge established OSIC, with lawyer and former artistic swimmer Sarah-Eve Pelletier at its helm, to be an independent body for abuse complaints.

OSIC began processing complaints and reports almost a year ago in June 2022.

All NSO's were given a deadline of April 1 of this year to become signatories to OSIC lest they lost federal funding.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 11, 2023.

The Canadian Press