Canada losing ground on abuse and harassment reporting in sports: study

When it comes to protecting its athletes, the country now lags behind the U.S., Australia and the United Kingdom

Sheldon Kennedy’s sexual abuse case against hockey coach Graham James rocked Canadian sport in the late 1990s, and Canada stepped up, writing one of the strongest sexual harassment and abuse policies in the world, experts say.

But 20 years later, most believe Canada has fallen asleep on the job. When it comes to protecting its athletes, the country now lags behind the U.S., Australia and the United Kingdom, according to a recent report. The ongoing trial of gymnastics coach Dave Brubaker plus high-profile cases in Alpine Canada and the Canadian Olympic Committee are proof.

What’s going on when the lights of Canada’s arenas and gymnasiums are dimmed? And why have people remained mum about it?

“What we had was really progressive in the mid-90s to early 2000s, and it’s just become stale,” said Peter Donnelly, a kinesiology and physical education professor from the University of Toronto.

“Now we know a lot more about the way abuse occurs in sport, we have a much better sense of how tracked the athletes are once they’re in the system, when their parents have committed so much money and time to it, when very often the abuser has groomed their parents, kids and young adults feel trapped, they’re getting closer to their dream, and this is happening to them.”

Brubaker is the former coach of the national women’s gymnastics team. He’s pleaded not guilty to sexual assault and invitation to sexual touching at a trial that will resume next month in Sarnia, Ont.

In June, Canada’s Sport Minister Kirsty Duncan announced that national sport organizations (NSOs) would lose their funding if they didn’t immediately disclose to her office any allegations of abuse or harassment. She also said having an independent third party investigate all allegations of abuse will be a requirement of government funding.

In their recent paper, however, Donnelly and fellow U of T professor Gretchen Kerr say those policies have been in place since 1996, as part of the Sport Canada Accountability Framework. They’re just not being adequately applied.

In “Revising Canada’s Policies on Harassment and Abuse in Sport,” Donnelly and Kerr found that of the 42 NSOs and their provincial counterparts (PSOs) they interviewed, only 13.9 per cent of NSOs, and 10 per cent of PSOs (provincial sport organizations) identified a harassment officer. None of them identified the officer as third-party or “arms length.”

Kerr and Donnelly say sport has to get away from self-regulation.

“That’s what we’ve had since 1996, and between our research and the high-profile cases that have emerged, it’s clear evidence that self-regulation is not working,” Kerr said, noting the other major sectors of society — the Catholic Church and Boy Scouts, for example — that have moved away from self-regulation.

Kerr, who’s volunteered with Gymnastics Canada as an athlete welfare officer for 30 years, said the problem is multifaceted. It’s difficult to find volunteers to perform a highly-specialized job. Some cases are incredibly time-consuming. And often, the job falls to an NSO staff member, “often times their own CEO,” she said.

“Which is just crazy, it’s a huge conflict of interest,” Kerr said.

READ MORE: B.C. groups to address child sex abuse in sports

She recounted a case in a sport where a coach was making sexually inappropriate comments to athletes.

“When I brought it forward to the sport organization, they said ‘Well, we’re not going to do anything about this coach, the Olympics are six months away, and he’s got half the Olympic team,’” Kerr said. “You can’t have people within the organization dealing with these cases. When you think about it, the CEO of any sport organization, their funding is dependent on Sport Canada’s funding, and what is Sport Canada’s funding based on? Performance of the athletes and the team.

“It’s a crazy system where the CEO’s job security is based on how well the athletes perform. It’s no wonder that cases like what we saw in USA Gymnastics happen.”

USA Gymnastics head Steve Penny was arrested last month on charges of evidence tampering in the case of Larry Nassar. Nassar is serving 40 to 175 years in Michigan for sexually abusing women and girls under the guise of medical treatment.

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. The athletes said they were instructed by Alpine Canada to keep quiet for fear of losing corporate sponsorships.

Former Olympic sprinter Desai Williams was recently banned for life by Athletics Canada for violating the organization’s sexual harassment policy. The alleged conduct took place in 2010.

In a study conducted over 20 years ago by Canadian professor Sandy Kirby, 21.8 per cent of elite athletes reported having had sex with an authority figure in sports; 8.6 per cent reported they had raped by someone within their sport.

Paul Melia, the president and CEO of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, compares today’s sex abuse crisis to the doping climate in Canadian track and field in the late 1980s. Everyone knew it was going on. Few spoke up.

“We can look at Marcel Aubut and say: look at the reign of terror under his rule there, and the things that he did and said to women. People saw it. People saw it and turned a blind eye,” Melia said. “Why? Probably at the most basic level, because he was bringing a lot of money into the COC.”

“These kinds of conflicts of interest … make it impossible for sports to self-regulate around that issue, just like Dubin (Charles Dubin led Canada’s doping inquiry in the Ben Johnson fallout) found with respect to doping that those same sort of conflicts of interest were operating. So, we all knew Ben was doping, government officials, coaches, doctors, administrators, other athletes, but no one said anything. He was the fastest man in the world, it was fantastic. And, the belief was that everyone else was doing it anyways, so really we were just levelling the playing field. And so no one said anything.”

Melia would like the CCES, which runs Canada’s anti-doping program, to be Canada’s sex abuse watchdog. The CCES has put a proposal into Sport Canada to convene a committee of experts both within and outside sport such as police, child services, even the Catholic Church and Boy Scouts, to build one national safe-sport program.

“So, like the anti-doping program, one universal code with a set of rules, everyone in sport has to adopt and abide by, one set of definitions of what constitutes violations, and … most importantly, the victim has a place to come, an independent agency that they know will deal confidentially with their information, we’ll investigate it, we’ll assert a violation if the evidence is there, and we’ll defend their rights,” he said.

The CCES operates an anonymous tip-line to report doping suspicions in Canada, and Melia said it’s very effective. A similar tip line to report sexual harassment or abuse would be a huge step in the right direction.

The USOC operates one through its SafeSport program, but as Donnelly pointed out: “What they’ve done again is very in-house.”

Donnelly, Kerr and Melia all hope the #MeToo movement and the high-profile sex abuse cases lead to a watershed moment in Canadian sport.

“It’s of course my best hope,” Kerr said. “I must say I am holding my breath because we were in this same situation in the mid 1990s when the Sheldon Kennedy case broke, and the Paul Hickson case in the UK (the British swim coach was sentenced in 1995 to 17 years in prison for sexual assaults on teenagers).

“There had been these high profile cases come out in the media from a number of countries, everyone got into crisis mode, and Sport Canada responded with the mandate that is currently in effect. And of course it hasn’t worked. So, I’m hoping that people recognize the historical background on this and take a different approach than the one that was taken in 1996.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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