Minister St-Onge announces creation of Sport Canada athletes commission

Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge said in her first five months on the job she received complaints of abuse, maltreatment and/or misappropriation of funds against national teams in eight sports. (Justin Tang/CP)

Canada's sport minister Pascale St-Onge emphasized once again that the athlete voice is critical in changing the sports culture in this country.

St-Onge announced a couple of safe-sport initiatives on Sunday, including the creation of an athlete advisory committee within Sport Canada to amplify athlete voices. The minister has also set a deadline of April 1, 2023 for national sport organizations (NSOs) to sign agreements to work with the new Office of the Integrity Commissioner (OSIC).

St-Onge also plans to review Sport Canada's funding agreements with NSO's to "ensure that the standards in matters of governance, accountability and security are reached.''

"We're all working towards breaking that culture of silence,'' St-Onge said. "So let's make sure that the athletes can speak out and feel free to do it. There's no reason to keep them from talking about their situation and what they're going through.''

St-Onge spoke at the culmination of the Canadian Olympic Committee's annual session in Montreal. The COC announced a day earlier that it's investing $10 million into safe sport initiatives amid what St-Onge has called a safe sport "crisis'' in Canada.

Hundreds of athletes in gymnastics, boxing, and bobsled and skeleton have called for independent investigations into their sports in recent weeks.

"The biggest theme is that athletes feel unheard and unseen. And so even as a starting point being asked what our experiences are, what our perspectives are, what our ideas are for change is critically important,'' said Rosie MacLennan, a two-time Olympic trampoline champion and chair of the COC's athletes commission.

"None of us want to see this system fail. We're all truly passionate about the sport system. We all truly love it ... but, the theme has been that athletes feel unheard and unseen. And I'm excited that that is now shifting.''

Earlier in the week, bobsled and skeleton athletes raised the issue of non-disparagement clauses in the athlete agreements they're required to sign. St-Onge had told The Canadian Press that NDAs are contrary to the very principles of safe sport.

She said Sunday that NDAs will be part of the conversation ahead of the next funding agreement with NSOs, and that they are "a preoccupation by the athletes that I heard quite clearly.''

Asked about athletes who are required to sign NDAs before then — Canada's bobsled and skeleton athletes must sign athlete agreements to report for training camps in early July — St-Onge said "it's time that athletes and the NSOs have conversations about this and that they can clear the air. If some are signing new contracts right now, let's try to change that.''

"We shouldn't be afraid of what athletes have to say,'' the minister said. "Because every time that (athletes speak out), it's an opportunity to make changes and to be better, and to ensure the safety and bring the trust back in the system, and making sure that parents trust us to send their kids to practise sport.

"Because it's so important in one person's development, whether it's for a psychological reason or physical health. We need sport in life. So we can't fail (in) this.''

The Canadian gymnasts who requested an independent investigation in late-March — an original group of 70 that has grown to more than 400 in recent weeks — said Sunday's announcements don't go far enough in addressing their concerns.

"Everything discussed today means that abuse will have already happened and the burden rests with the athletes to see a complaint through a difficult process,'' the group, operating as Gymnasts for Change Canada, said in a statement. "We still have 1,000-plus Canadian athletes waiting for resolution to existing problems that won't and can't be address by a process that is only looking forward.

"If we don't examine the past, there is no opportunity to make amends, assist with healing, and … be very clear on how to recognize the signs so the culture of abuse that so many of us have experienced does not re-emerge. Ever.''

While Sport Canada only oversees national organizations that receive federal funding, St-Onge plans to hold discussions about safe sport with provincial and territorial federations at the Canada Summer Games in August.

David Shoemaker, the COC's CEO and secretary-general, said Canadian sport has never been about winning at all costs.

"For the Canadian Olympic Committee, it's always been about winning the right way,'' he said. "We believe that we can relentlessly pursue Olympic and Paralympic performance, to get athletes and Canadian teams on podiums and, at the same time, relentlessly pursue a safe and healthy sport culture in Canada.

"What's at stake for us here is a country that can be proud of the athletes that represent it on the world stage.''

Erin Willson, the president of AthletesCAN, the association representing Canadian athletes, called the weekend's meetings an "encouraging step.''

She acknowledged there's concerns about the backlog of cases OSIC could face once it starts receiving complaints later this month. But she thought the creation of the athletes commission was a positive step.

"It really signifies this idea that athletes are having a more formalized voice in the system,'' she said. I think that has been something that we've learned this weekend, it's really, really been missing."

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