Canada’s sport minister Pascale St-Onge unveils slate of safe sport reforms

Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022. (Justin Tang/CP)

Canada’s sport minister announced a slate of reforms Thursday to address the safe sport crisis.

Pascale St-Onge unveiled measures to make national sports organizations more accountable for the federal funding they receive.

A public registry of people who have been sanctioned or suspended within the sport system, restricting the use of non-disclosure agreements, making financial statements public and changing the makeup of boards of directors were among measures announced.

The recent avalanche of athlete complaints about maltreatment and abuse, including sexual abuse, in their sports threw Canadian sport into crisis.

Tearful athletes across several sports have testified at parliamentary committee hearings in Ottawa about the abuse and harassment they experienced from coaches and other team personnel, how those in power turned a blind eye to it, and their fear of repercussions if they complained.

There have been calls from some quarters for a national inquiry, including St-Onge’s predecessor Kirsty Duncan, which St-Onge has so far resisted.

Among the measures announced Thursday:

— A public registry of people sanctioned under the Universal Code of Conduct to Prevent and Address Maltreatment in Sport (UCCMS).

— Non-disclosure agreements/non-disparagement clauses can’t be used to prevent athletes and other sport participants from disclosing abuse or harassment they’ve experienced or seen. National sport organizations must adopt the AthletesCAN’s athlete agreement template.

— Athletes representation on an NSO’s board of directors is mandatory, at least 40 per cent of the board must be independent from the organization, no staff member can sit on the board, and there is a term limit of nine years.

— NSO’s must publish online their annual audited financial statements, board meeting minutes and annual reports on board diversity.

This year’s federal budget committed $13.8 million to safe sport. 

A new Sport Canada compliance unit will work with national sport organizations and external experts to address problems, monitor performance and tie meeting those goals to federal funding. Those plans must be in place by 2024.

Sport Canada and the Canadian Olympic Committee will spend a combined $2 million on education and promotion of the UCCMS, and what tools are available to combat abuse.

The Coaching Association of Canada will receive $250,000 to ensure all national and developmental team coaches are screened and certified. The certification includes background checks and UCCMS training.

“Looking out for athletes’ well-being is my top priority as Minister of Sport,” St-Onge said in a statement. 

“Sport can’t only be about medals and podiums. Athletes must have a greater voice at all levels of decision making. 

“The concrete measures I have announced today are part of a long-term shift to turn the tide on a much-needed culture change in sport. 

“The new mandatory requirements will increase the accountability of sport organizations, improve governance practices, and prioritize athlete representation in decision-making structures.”

Athletes who will serve on an advisory committee to Sport Canada will be named soon, said the statement.

Within weeks of St-Onge taking on the sport portfolio in October 2021, she was faced with what she called a safe sport crisis.

Accusations of maltreatment, sexual abuse or misuse of funds were aimed at least eight national sport organization in her first five months in office.

Dissatisfaction and problems in Canadian high-performance sport were surfacing before the 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympics with some national sports organizations conducting internal reviews before Beijing.

But within days of the closing ceremonies, athletes in the sports of bobsled and skeleton and boxing were publicly calling for the firing of federation personnel and dozens of gymnasts came forward detailing abuse in their sport.

Rugby players, rowers and artistic swimmers joined the throng demanding change ranging from the ouster of leaders and coaches to the handling of bullying and harassment complaints to opaque decisions made around athlete selection for teams.

In the midst of that turmoil came revelations about Hockey Canada’s handling of alleged gang rape by members of the 2018 junior men’s hockey team at a gala that year.

Hockey Canada using a portion of minor hockey registration fees to settle sexual assault lawsuits caused a furor and furthered unease that something had gone wrong in Canadian sport.

Measuring success by the number of international medals won, and the funding decisions based on that, went under the microscope.

The Canadian taxpayer is the largest investor in high-performance sport at over $200 million annually.

Athletes continue to testify for, and sport executives continue to be grilled by, members of Parliament in Ottawa.

Canada Soccer was among the latest called on the carpet as athletes from the women’s team spoke of both financial mismanagement of their program and the handling of a coach convicted of sexual assault.

St-Onge has been asked to use her funding powers to punish federations for allowing a culture of abuse, and force change within the culture.

She suspended Hockey Canada’s funding last year and restored it last month. 

St-Onge also froze Gymnastics Canada’s money until it became an signatory to the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner (OSIC), which the organization did in October.

The minister said earlier this month an audit of Canada Soccer was a possibility.

St-Onge established OSIC, with lawyer and former artistic swimmer Sarah-Eve Pelletier at its helm, to be an independent body for abuse complaints. 

OSIC began processing complaints and reports almost a year ago in June, 2022. 

All NSO’s were given a deadline of April 1 of this year to become signatories to OSIC lest they lost federal funding.

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