Former sport minister Duncan has zero faith Hockey Canada can clean up its sport

Minister of Science and Minister for Sport and Persons with Disabilities Kirsty Duncan is photographed in her office in Ottawa on Wednesday, July 11, 2018. (Justin Tang/CP)

TORONTO — As a former gymnast who has seen the darker side of that sport, Kirsty Duncan’s mandate was to try to eradicate abuse in Canadian sport.

Duncan, who was Canada’s sport minister from 2015 to ’19, is angry she wasn’t informed by either Hockey Canada or Sport Canada about the assault allegations against the world junior team in 2018.

She said she has zero confidence in Hockey Canada to clean up the sport now, particularly if the same people remain in charge.

“If we look at hockey, they failed for 30 years,” Duncan said. “We’re hearing about initiatives. We’re hearing a lot after the fact. The watershed moment should have been after Sheldon Kennedy (who was abused by then-coach Graham James in junior hockey).

“Did Hockey Canada change? The answer is no. I think they’ve played right around the edges. I think they’ve done bits and pieces. But I think they’ve failed to change the culture over 30 years. And why is this time different, if it’s the same leadership?”

Duncan spoke to The Canadian Press the day after publishing an op-ed in the Globe and Mail about hockey and Canada’s safe-sport crisis. The emotion was obvious in her voice.

She wrote about growing up in gymnastics, which has also been in the spotlight recently with more than 500 Canadian gymnasts calling for an independent investigation into their sport.

“I know personally what it feels like to be told to eat Jell-O, laxatives, toilet paper, and water pills to ‘make weight,’ and to be repeatedly verbally abused by other coaches, judges, and parents,” Duncan wrote.

“I’ll tell you about a judge,” she said in Friday’s phone interview. “I’m at a local competition. It’s LOCAL. It’s club level. The judge came up to my mom, in front of the whole crowd and said ‘Your daughter’s good, but she has a fat ass.’ I would have been 11 or 12.”

Duncan, who is an MP for Etobicoke North, said she’s dedicated most of her life to sport, becoming a coach and judge after her days as an athlete.

“(Kids) get one childhood,” she said. “There was nothing I thought was more important than to become a coach, I couldn’t wait to become a coach and you have young athletes, you’ve got these little guys, the four-year-olds and they look at you with those big trusting eyes. How can you not do everything you can to protect them?”

Elite athletes, coaches and judges often see instances of maltreatment. That’s why, after “being angry for 30 years,” Duncan made safe sport her mandate.

“When I got the chance to do something, I grabbed it and I had one goal: protect athletes and children. I did everything in my power to put in protections in sport,” she said.

Duncan said she received major pushback when trying to introduce safe-sport initiatives, which included 13 safe-sport summits across the country, creating a universal code of conduct, a phone-in tip line, an advisory group of experts on safe sport, and a gender equity research hub.

Duncan believes that there needs to be a sport-by-sport reckoning in Canada now, and the unwieldy prospect of policing sport at the grassroots, provincial and national level will take “everyone.”

“Everyone has a piece of this. Everyone has to step up,” she said.

“It is overwhelming,” Duncan added. “But in the school system, there’s a duty of care. If you see something, you have to report it.That doesn’t exist in sport. That’s why I was clear every time I spoke to the sport community, ‘you have a duty of care.’ That means there’s no turning away. There’s no saying ‘I didn’t see, I didn’t hear.’ Are you telling me that Hockey Canada couldn’t see the patterns?”

Duncan, who was minister of both sport and science, said the federal government needs to make sport a priority, with a large dedicated department and the necessary funding.

“Because we’re dealing with young people. It’s the future of our country. Let’s give them the best start we can.”

The Hockey Canada controversy began when the national sport organization reached a settlement in May with a woman who alleges she was sexually assaulted in 2018 by members of Canada’s world junior team.

Since then, Sport Canada froze the funding to Hockey Canada, sponsors have withdrawn their support, and then news broke of allegations of another group sexual assault involving Canadian junior players in 2003.

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