As Canada's first Sport Integrity Commissioner, Pelletier looks to be an agent for change

Iain MacIntyre speaks with Sarah-Eve Pelletier who explains the authority that the Office of the Sport Integrity commissioner has and breaks down how the office determines whether they have authority over a particular case.

It wasn’t abuse in her sport that pushed Sarah-Ève Pelletier to become an ardent and now powerful advocate for change, but the opposite.

A Canadian junior and senior champion in synchronized swimming in the early 2000s, Pelletier’s experiences as an elite athlete were “wonderful.” Which is why the lawyer from Montreal finds it agonizing to hear stories about the abuse and maltreatment of athletes and others whose sport experiences have been far different than her own.

“I've been very fortunate,” Pelletier said Wednesday in an interview with Sportsnet. “I've had a wonderful sport experience and I've taken away so much from my sport experience. And that's the kind of experience I wish everybody had, and it's heartbreaking when you hear that not everyone has had a positive sport experience.

“My passion for sport was born (as an athlete) so when I decided to pursue legal studies, law for me was not an end, law for me was a means. And the end was sports. I knew right away that I wanted to become a sports lawyer and pursue a career in sport applying my skills and trying to be a positive agent for change in sport.”

As Canada’s first Sport Integrity Commissioner, Pelletier is arguably one of the most empowered agents for change in this country. Her office, under the umbrella of the federal government’s long-standing Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada (SDRCC), opened on June 20 with the mandate to independently receive and investigate allegations of abuse and code-of-conduct violations.

When Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge last week suspended government funding to Hockey Canada over its handling of an alleged group sexual assault by junior players in 2018, she made a condition for re-instatement be Hockey Canada signing on to the Office of Sport Integrity Commissioner.

Following explosive testimony last week by outgoing Hockey Canada CEO Tom Renney and president Scott Smith, summoned to Parliament Hill by the MPs on the Canadian Heritage Committee, the government issued subpoenas for more information and will hold further hearings with Hockey Canada, its legal firm and insurer on July 26-27 in Ottawa.

This particular Hockey Canada file could end up on Pelletier’s desk, which is why her office asked Sportsnet to avoid direct questions about the case in our interview.

“I think what we have to consider is that over the recent months, many groups of athletes. . . and many individuals themselves have used their voice and their individual voices, their collective voice, to put things into the light,” Pelletier said. “And those things have always been unacceptable.

“This is an office, something in need, that has been identified by the sport community for quite some time. A lot of people in the sport community and experts and organizations have worked for a number of years to really identify what was needed and what are the possible solutions to really work towards eradicating any form of abuse and discrimination from sport.”

Pelletier said she senses in recent months a “heightened urgency” for action.

Her office will investigate violations of the Universal Code of Conduct to Address and Prevent Maltreatment in Sport (UCCMS), established in 2019 for all national sporting bodies that receive government funding. About six per cent of Hockey Canada’s funding comes from Ottawa.

Pelletier said in cases involving allegations prior to 2019, it’s “not all black and white” and considerations must include what codes of conduct, if any, were in place at the time.

But she added: “It could be that there wasn't a code of conduct, but the conduct was criminal. So if it's criminal, it means that it was never acceptable.”

Understand the Hockey Canada case

Sponsors respond: Following Scotiabank's announcement on Tuesday that it was pausing its sponsorship of Hockey Canada, several other sponsors have withdrawn their support for the upcoming men's world junior tournament.

The investigation continues: The Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage has issued subpoenas for witnesses from Hockey Canada to appear and requested emails and texts for hearings in late July.

Your questions, answered: After officials testified for two-and-a-half hours before the Heritage Committee, more unknowns emerged. Here are the answers we know so far. .

Another important point that could apply to the Hockey Canada case is that although most allegations of code-of-conduct violations involve parties within the same sport organization, such as between a coach and athlete, the Integrity Commissioner has the power to investigate complaints from external parties.

“What is most important to remember is that it doesn't matter, per se, who makes the complaint,” Pelletier said. “What matters truly is: Who is the complaint made against? Who has committed a violation is truly the anchor point and the most important criteria. That person needs to be a recognized member of a (sports) organization, and that organization needs to be a signatory to our program.”

So far, only four national bodies, including the organizations that oversee volleyball and weightlifting, have signed on to Pelletier’s office. But 50 other organizations have signed letters-of-intent to do so, and the SDRCC is in discussions with at least that many others.

Most organizations have their own dispute mechanisms, Pelletier explained, so it takes time to transition to a new model.

After retiring as an athlete in 2007, Pelletier went to law school, eventually completing two law degrees. She became an accredited civil mediator and joined the Quebec Bar and, prior to her appointment as Integrity Commissioner, had postings with the Canadian Olympic Committee and International Olympic Committee.

“It's exhilarating in a way from a professional perspective to be contributing to an important program like this one and to really try to effect change,” Pelletier said. “It won't be easy and certainly my heart goes out to the people who have suffered. As much as this is challenging for me professionally, I am also very mindful that we are talking about very sensitive matters and, again, that people in sport have not all had the positive experience that they should have. We're going to try to do our very best to offer a safe place for all and a process. . . that would be as fair as possible.”

Resources for survivors

If you or someone you know has endured sexual violence and is in need of support, those in Canada can find province-specific centres, crisis lines and services here. For readers in America, a list of resources and references can be found here.

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