Q&A with minister of sport Pascale St-Onge: 'I feel a responsibility to change things'

Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge sat with Iain MacIntyre to discuss the Hockey Canada investigation, how the flawed culture is embedded within the organization, and her confidence in Hockey Canada's leadership.

In a sitdown interview in Montreal on Thursday with Sportsnet's Iain MacIntyre, minister of sport Pascale St-Onge discussed her thoughts on what Hockey Canada needs to change, what she plans on doing to make sports federations more accountable and what's next. Here is the edited transcript of that conversation.

Sportsnet: Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge, thank you for joining us today and giving us some of your very valuable time. What have the last few months been like for you, as a new cabinet minister dealing with a crisis in sports in Canada?

St-Onge: Well, one of the reasons why I got involved in politics is to be an agent of change. So, hearing the stories about the athletes, their stories of sometimes abuse and maltreatment, and I'm an ex-athlete, I'm an ex-musician but I'm also an ex-athlete, and I had such great experiences in sports and swimming and volleyball. So, when I hear those stories of abuse and maltreatment and the Hockey Canada story about sexual abuse, I feel like it's time to make change and it's time to empower different people to affect this change, really in different organizations and in sports. So, the voices of the athletes are what motivate me every day, even though it's hard stories. It's really difficult to listen to all those stories, but we need to make it better. We really owe it to those athletes and also to their families.

SN: Before asking more about Hockey Canada and and Sport Canada, the department that you run that administers all the sports organizations in Canada that receive federal funding, I want to ask you a little bit more about your journey to this point. You have a degree in French literature, and then you went to journalism school and became president of the media union of Quebec. What made you decide to join politics?

St-Onge: The work that I had been doing in the union (came) in a moment of crisis, also in the media sector and in the cultural sector because of the arrival of the different platforms, and the economic difficulties that the sector faced, and also then the pandemic and the pressure that it put on workers. So, very soon when I started that job at the union as president, I had to do politics. I had to convey different partners around the table to find solutions because we needed the innovation and new solutions to get out of this crisis. And then we needed to explain to the governments, whether it's provincial or federal governments, that without media, and without journalists, there's a big problem with democracy and with any other institution. So, that's the work I did when I was at the federation. So, yes, it's not active politics, but it's pretty close.

SN: You had never run for political office before you were elected in last year's federal election in the riding of Brome-Missisquoi. And shortly after that, last October, you were named minister of sport and minister of economic development agency of Canada for the regions of Quebec, which I know doesn't fit on a business card, but it sounds like an awful lot of work as well. Did you know what you were getting yourself into when you took on these portfolios as a first-time elected official?

St-Onge: Well, no. (laughs) You know, especially sport, I knew that there were challenges for sure in that in any portfolio, there are challenges, and people that like challenges get involved in politics. So, I was ready to face it, but the extent of the problematic, and much-needed culture change, I was at first shocked. So, on economic development, I mean, we're getting out of a huge pandemic, and there's so many sectors that have had a hard time in the past two years. So, there's great work to be done to give a hand and make sure that we choose the right targets to make sure that our economy is going well.

SN: The 2018 allegations of a mass sexual assault involving junior hockey players from Team Canada in 2018: Just appalling to everybody, just horrendous. But this story about Hockey Canada, and maybe sport, in broader terms has continued to expand and develop. As for Hockey Canada, what has troubled you the most about what you've heard and what you've learned about the organization?

St-Onge: For Hockey Canada specifically, I think that the most troubling piece is how embedded in the organization's culture it is to protect the players at any cost and the culture of silence. Also, it's – we've all heard stories about hockey, so it's not a surprise to anyone, but how it's deeply rooted in the way that the organization functions. That's deeply troubling.

SN: You testified before the Canadian Heritage Committee, which oversees sports in Canada in Ottawa on Tuesday. On Wednesday, there was further testimony by nine senior officials, past and present, from Hockey Canada and the Canadian Hockey League, all nine of them men. You had said the day before that you wanted to see some diversity that you wanted to hear other voices around the decision-making table at Hockey Canada. How important do you think that is for change and getting the organization to a better place?

St-Onge: I think it's fundamental. I don't see how an organization that has been functioning for so long with the same voices and the same type of voices and the same type of people in power positions, how they can operate and produce the change that Canadians deserve in the organization if it's the same people in place. I just don't see it happening. And one of the main issues that we're talking about these days about Hockey Canada – but there is sexual violence – but there are issues about racism and other issues in hockey that we've heard also about in the past few months. So, there needs to be diversity around the table, around the decision-making process. There needs to be new voices, new ideas and new leadership. And I strongly believe that if you take, for example, my government, if there weren't diverse people around the table, maybe there wouldn't have been a ban on conversion therapy this year. Or maybe we wouldn't have lifted the ban for gay male blood donors. So, to make change and to make sure that an organization is connected with the society that they're supposed to be part of, it needs to reflect the society that they're in.

SN: When you suspended funding to Hockey Canada after the story broke about the civil lawsuit stemming from 2018 and the very rapid and – until the story broke – secret settlement through Hockey Canada, you put two conditions on restoring that funding. One is that Hockey Canada sign on to the office of the sports integrity commissioner, the other was that they undergo a financial audit to make sure that taxpayer funds weren't used to settle that civil suit. There was no condition about leadership. Perhaps that's beyond your scope as minister, but how what level of confidence do you have in Hockey Canada's leadership?

St-Onge: I think that now it comes down to the board of Hockey Canada. They have a responsibility towards the Canadian public and towards the children and their parents that register those children who played hockey in Canada. They have a responsibility towards these people. And right now their job is to assess whether the people in place are the right ones, to change the organization and to really put in place the action plan that they presented to us. I don't even know if that action plan is complete, if it's the right thing to do. I'm going to have it evaluated also by experts. I'm going to have conversations about that to make sure that whatever they're doing, that we feel are the right steps to do. But the board needs to assess whether the people in place are capable of doing what they haven't done in the past two years, because they've known since 2018 that there were problems and before that, for sure. So, why now make that change? Why not before and all the money that was spent in the past 30 years covering up stories or paying for victims? Why wasn't as much money invested or even more on prevention, and making sure that the hockey players are well-surrounded, that they're well supported that they're well-educated.

SN: Sport Canada is the federal department within your ministry that disperses funds to the many organizations that receive government funds. One of the most surprising moments of testimony in Ottawa was when Sport Canada's senior director, Michel Ruest, testified that he became aware of the details of this alleged 2018 sexual assault the week after it occurred, yet did not forward those details to the then minister of sport, and so funding and business continued as usual for Hockey Canada for four more years, until this story broke. Does the question about leadership need to extend to your department? Will you look at the people that you have in charge?

St-Onge: I'm absolutely going to look at how Sport Canada is dealing with those cases. And it's something that I've already said before, because when I first testified, I did say that Sport Canada had received a statement from Hockey Canada saying that there were alleged sexual assaults that they had deferred the case to the local police and that they had hired a third-party investigation. And that was what Sport Canada had to do, was make sure that the federation was taking action. Because Sport Canada doesn't have investigative powers and it doesn't have regulatory powers either. It's a financial contribution that links us to the federations, but the process after it needs to be revised, for sure. I mean, there should have been follow-ups and there needs to be better communication with the minister's office to make enlightened decisions about funding. But everybody learned the extension of what happened in 2022. No one at Sport Canada or elsewhere knew that we were talking about rape, that we were talking about eight players involved. And so that was all new information to me and to Sport Canada.

SN: Some of the MPs on the Heritage committee were very concerned about that testimony from Ruest. Conservative MP Kevin Waugh said we have to blow up Sport Canada, "we need a cleansing in hockey and we need a cleansing in Sport." NDP MP Peter Julian said "Sport Canada simply has not been verifying, has not been proactive in protecting athletes and protecting the public. Sport Canada has failed miserably miserably at its role." He also said that it's been functioning as an honour system, and that honour system doesn't work. Do you agree that the honour system doesn't work and you have to find a better way to oversee and hold groups accountable for the funding they receive?

St-Onge: Absolutely, and that's part of the process that I'm engaged in. I've already announced, on June 12, we had a big conference where we conveyed all the leaders in sport. This was organized by the COC and that was part of the plan that I presented to the sport community. I'm going to revise the entire funding system, and that includes how, at Sport Canada, we have the expertise and build that expertise to be able to assess if those federations are living up to the expectations that we set for them. And we're going to set new expectations about governance, for example. And when we talk about Hockey Canada and the representation around the table, we're going to take a look at that, what are the best governance practices are for all sport federations. So, after that, when we set new expectations and new criteria to obtain federal funding, I need to make sure that Sport Canada can evaluate properly whether they have met those requirements or not, so that we can then adjust adjust our policy with these federations.

SN: There's lots of discussion about 2018, there's now a story about the 2003 Canadian junior team, but you've only been in this role for nine months. How much responsibility do you feel for what what has happened?

St-Onge: I feel a responsibility to change things and push as far as I can to operate this change and to impose that change where there is resistance. And I feel like I'm as accountable as anybody else in the sport system in obtaining results, and that's what I'm aiming at, and that's what I'm working on. And it's the voice of the athletes that motivates me every day to do that because some of them have shown a tremendous amount of courage in speaking out against their own federation against what was happening to them. And I feel like I can push as much as I want as a minister and I can introduce new policies and new verifications and I can do a lot of things, but I can't do everything by myself. Those federations have responsibilities. The coaches, the officials, the athletes, the witnesses, the parents, we're collectively realizing the problems that exist in sport. So, we need to fix it collectively. Not one person can do that. Everybody needs to join and everybody needs to speak up and act.

SN: And, as you know, it's not one sport. We're all focused on Hockey Canada, but gymnastics, wrestling, soccer, bobsled ... you've described what's going on in the country as a crisis. Does it feel to you that we're at some kind of tipping point, we're at a historical crossroads in Canada with how sports are administered and funded and overseen?

St-Onge: I would say that we are in the middle of a big change in the sport community. But this change started since 2018, since my predecessor Kristy Duncan, who introduced the first universal code of conduct. There was nothing before that to link everybody in the Sport system in understanding and agreeing what is abuse, what is maltreatment, and have accountability on those issues. So, I'm building on the work that was started by others in my government. Steven Guilbeault, just before the election, nominated the SDRCC, the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre (of Canada) to create this new office of the sports integrity commissioner. And the job of that new person that started on June 20 is to build an independent mechanism that athletes can turn to when they are facing cases of abuse and maltreatment, so it doesn't have to go through their own federation. So, that's something new that we're building also. Now, we need to make sure that these tools that we're putting out there for the sports system, that they work, but also that people on the field, in the gym, on the ice rink, that they do their job as well.

SN: I know that you've spent a lot of your nine months listening to athletes. You were given a chance at the end of your testimony on Tuesday to speak to athletes, and forgive me if I mischaracterize it, you sounded a little bit emotional, your voice almost caught. Are you emotional about this issue? If so, why are you so emotionally invested?

St-Onge: It's impossible to not be emotional after everything that I'm hearing and the more that athletes come out, and the more of those stories that are covered by amazing journalists, the more people feel empowered and feel that they can talk. And some of those stories are horrific. And I swam, I played volleyball, I had great teammates, great coaches. I had an amazing experience in sports and I know how much impact it had on me as a human being and the person that I am today, and knowing that the sport destroyed some lives had negative impact on young people when sports should be positive, I feel we need to change it.

SN: Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your time today, Minister St. Onge.

St-Onge: Thank you for coming down to Montreal to do this interview.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Comments are turned off for this story.
We use cookies to improve your experience. Learn More or change your cookie preferences. By continuing to use this site, you agree to the use of cookies.