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Sport integrity commissioner can do a wider inquiry of abuse in sport: St-Onge

OTTAWA — The new sport integrity commissioner needs to do a wider inquiry digging into a toxic culture of abuse in Canadian sporting organizations, federal Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge said Wednesday.
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Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge speaks with media before attending caucus on Parliament Hill, Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022 in Ottawa. St-Onge says she wants the new sport integrity commissioner to do a wider inquiry digging into a toxic culture of abuse in Canadian sporting organizations. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA — The new sport integrity commissioner needs to do a wider inquiry digging into a toxic culture of abuse in Canadian sporting organizations, federal Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge said Wednesday.

With hundreds of athletes from multiple sports coming forward with allegations of physical, sexual and psychological abuse, St-Onge said clearly more needs to be done.

"I think there should be (a public inquiry) and it should be conducted by the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner," St-Onge told reporters Wednesday after the weekly Liberal caucus meeting in Ottawa.

St-Onge's office is currently seized with allegations of abuse and sexual assaults in Canadian hockey, and both she and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have called for a full change in leadership at Hockey Canada over its handling of the situation.

Trudeau said Wednesday he does not think the organization's board or executives really understand the seriousness of what is happening after the interim board chair defended a decision not to force executives to step down.

"It boggles the mind that Hockey Canada is continuing to dig in its heels," Trudeau said. "Parents across the country are losing faith or have lost faith in Hockey Canada. Certainly, politicians here in Ottawa have lost faith in Hockey Canada." 

He said he hopes they figure it out "because hockey is a really important sport to a lot of Canadians and a lot of kids, and right now this mess is doing no favours to kids across the country."

Opposition parties on Wednesday pressed Trudeau on the government's handling of the matter, with Bloc Québécois MP Sébastien Lemire asking for the situation be explored through an independent probe.  

St-Onge suspended federal funding for Hockey Canada in June and said she will not consider restoring it until the organization signs on to work with the new Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner.

The office began its work in June, established by the federal government as an independent agency to investigate allegations of abuse in sport.

But hockey is far from the only sport with issues. St-Onge took on the role of minister of sport just last October, but within the first few months hundreds of athletes from at least eight sports had come forward with allegations of abuse, maltreatment and misuse of funds.

Bobsleigh, skeleton, rowing, boxing, rugby, soccer and alpine skiing are just some of the sports where athletes have come forward. 

In 2018, former skiers launched a lawsuit against Alpine Canada alleging it covered up sexual abuse at the hands of a coach in part to prevent a loss of sponsorships. That lawsuit was settled out of court in 2019. The coach, Bertrand Charest, was convicted in 2017 of multiple counts of sexual assault and exploitation involving young athletes.

In March of this year, 70 current and former gymnasts wrote an open letter to Sport Canada asking for an independent investigation into a toxic culture in their sport. That number has now grown to more than 500, and more and more gymnasts are speaking publicly about physical, mental and sexual abuse suffered often at the hands of coaches.

Like she did with Hockey Canada, St-Onge cut off federal funding to Gymnastics Canada until it signs on with the sport integrity commissioner.

She has given all sporting organizations until April to sign on with that office, but as of now, only five have, including Volleyball Canada, the Canada Games Council, Canadian Sport for Life, Canadian Sport Centre Atlantic and Weightlifting Canada.

Liberal MP Kirsty Duncan, who was the minister of sport in 2018 and 2019, said in a speech at the University of Saskatchewan last month that Canada held an inquiry in 1989 to investigate allegations of widespread athlete doping after Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal from the Seoul Olympics for testing positive for steroids. 

She said Canada now needs "a commission of inquiry into abuse, harassment and sexual assault in sport. To let people be heard, to show the extent of the problem and to receive actionable recommendations for the government to implement."

She is not alone.

Liberal MP Chris Bittle, who sits on the House of Commons heritage committee that is currently trying to get to the bottom of what is happening at Hockey Canada, said he is not against the idea of a wider inquiry.

"We need to expand the study well beyond Hockey Canada and well beyond what we're looking at," he said. "And I think there's strong desire in the committee to keep going and keep asking the questions, because ultimately, it's about protecting children."

Families Minister Karina Gould said a public inquiry on abuse in sport "is not a bad idea."

"There’s a question here about how we ensure the protection and the safety of athletes, but also, of course what we saw with Hockey Canada and the conduct of athletes, and I think all of us as Canadians want to ensure that this kind of behaviour is, a) unacceptable, and b) doesn’t happen again."

St-Onge said the sport integrity commissioner is the organization with "the power to do independent investigations on the culture and this is really important to change what's happening at Hockey Canada."

She said her office is also auditing all sporting organizations to look for any abuse of public funds.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 5, 2022.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

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