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Canadian sport can’t be all about medals, says sports minister St-Onge

‘We have to talk about the safety of athletes and their well-being as a whole’
Minister of Sport and Minister responsible for the Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec Pascale St-Onge rises in the House of Commons during Question Period on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023. St-Onge says excellence needs to be redefined in the national sport policy. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Canadian sports minister Pascale St-Onge says emphasis on athletes winning medals needs to change because of the recent explosion of abuse and maltreatment complaints across the country.

“It can’t only be about medals and podiums,” she told a parliamentary committee hearing Monday in Ottawa.

“We have to talk about the safety of athletes and their well-being as a whole.”

Redefining the term “excellence” in the national sport policy would represent a shift away from the high-performance mandate established ahead of the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C.

The performance of the host team was considered integral to the success of the those Games, so Canadian taxpayers would feel they got bang for their Olympic buck.

Canadian teams posted large medal hauls in 2010 and at subsequent Summer and Winter Olympic Games, but pressure to perform and reach the podium has also been cited as a reason for a toxic culture of silence around abuse of athletes.

“The discussion is truly about how do we define excellence. In previous mandates, I would say it was about medals and podiums,” St-Onge said.

“Now we need to take into account the excellence of the organizations themselves, how they take the well-being of athletes into a holistic approach.”

Taxpayers are the largest funder of Olympic and Paralympic sport in Canada at over $200 million annually.

St-Onge, who was appointed sports minister two years ago, was grilled by the Standing Committee on the Status of Women as part of its hearings into women and girls in sport.

Among those who have appeared before the committee and given harrowing testimony, Canadian cyclist Genevieve Jeanson said in December her coach first hit her at the age of 14, sexually assaulted her at 15 and gave her performance-enhancing drugs at 16.

“There is simply no reason, no justification for sport to be synonymous with abuse,” St-Onge said Monday.

The minister was questioned about a national public inquiry into abuse in sport, a registry of coaches to prevent abusers from moving to other jurisdictions and how St-Onge intends to use her power to fund and defund sports organizations as a means to stop abuse.

Her department oversees 70 national sport organizations among the 94 bodies under its umbrella.

St-Onge established the office of the sport integrity commissioner (OSIC) last year with former artistic swimmer Sarah-Ève Pelletier appointed its first commissioner.

All organizations must be signatories to that office by April 1 or risk losing their federal funding.

Forty-three have signed on so far, St-Onge said, but Pelletier’s reach so far doesn’t extend to the provincial or club level.

Some complaints have been rejected because they’ve been deemed outside of the commissioner’s jurisdiction.

“Even if all national sports organization sign on, there will still be a huge gap, one we cannot ignore,” St-Onge said.

“While the federal government and national sports organizations are responsible for about 3,700 athletes, the vast majority of cases of abuse and maltreatment happen outside the federal scope.

“They happen in local clubs, leagues and gyms, all of which are within the responsibility of provincial territorial and local authority.”

St-Onge will meet with territorial and provincial sport counterparts Saturday and Sunday in Prince Edward Island at the start of the Canada Winter Games.

She will urge them to either sign onto OSIC or establish their own independent safe sport reporting mechanism as Quebec and New Brunswick have done.

“There’s a huge gap in the system,” the minister said. “It needs to be closed as soon as possible.

“Regardless of the level, a child entering this sports system should know where to turn if they’ve experienced situations that are unacceptable.”

NDP MP Bonita Zarrillo accused St-Onge of “passing the buck” and Bloc Québécois MP Sébastien Lemire didn’t believe St-Onge was doing enough fast enough for safe sport.

“Time is of the essence,” Lemire said. “You’ve had your mandate for over a year and I don’t believe that sports have been safer since.

“We can see that things only move when they’ve been made public. If not, the machine just protects itself.

“We need an independent inquiry so we can understand so we can understand the mechanisms.”

Lemire echoed calls from various quarters, including athletes, for a national public inquiry.

St-Onge responded she doesn’t want to re-traumatize athletes who have experienced abuse.

“There are athletes that I’ve spoken to, victims that have said to me that they don’t want to relive their trauma, so it’s important for me that the mechanism that we’ll be implementing, that it would be a safe space,” she said.

St-Onge says she’s exploring ways to create a coaching registry, which she says Pelletier also wants.

A registry of certified coaches, with those under sanctions removed or absent from the list, is one option, she said.

—Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

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