Eastside Boxing Club was their safe space. But these women say a toxic, bullying environment drove them out
Club that runs programs for women and those at risk says complainants trying to 'further their own interests'
Catherine Accardi is a fighter.
For the past seven years, Accardi, 22, has trained as a boxer in Toronto and now in Vancouver, where she relocated in 2019.
"I love boxing. It's my form of empowerment. It's my form of decompression," Accardi said, sitting in the East Vancouver home she shares with roommates.
"It brings a lot of joy to my life."
Accardi is quick to smile. Her long, dark, curly hair is usually pulled back. She's talkative, a bit loud. Her body is in constant motion.
She has fought in the ring 10 times. But now she has taken on a battle she never expected.
Accardi is one of several female athletes, coaches and staff at Vancouver's Eastside Boxing Club who have come forward with allegations against her coach, as well as the club's executive director and chair of the board of directors, Dave Schuck.
The complainants allege that Schuck explodes with anger at staff, coaches and members, that he is sometimes drunk at work and that he can't handle criticism. Accardi has also accused her coach, whom CBC News is not naming because he is not the main target of the allegations, of inappropriate touching and flirting.
CBC News has spoken independently with several women about their complaints. Some of them formally brought their concerns to the board of Eastside Boxing. Others simply left the gym to train or work elsewhere.
Some of the accusers say their concerns have been met with anger, legal threats and further bullying. They say Schuck, 45, has been defensive and manipulative and the club has mishandled their complaints.
They say their situation is particularly hurtful because Eastside Boxing is a non-profit organization that advertises its programs for women, at-risk youth and vulnerable residents on the Downtown Eastside. Each year it puts on two high-profile events, Restaurant Rumble and Beer Wars, to raise funds for those programs.
The women say the club was a source of refuge, strength and friendship for them.
"We literally just wanted to bring our concerns forward, have them be heard, have them be acknowledged as legitimate," Accardi said.
"My concerns have never been acknowledged. They've been shut down as not true, as a form of divisive behaviour, as a form of sabotage."
'Malicious actions of a select few'
Schuck and the board of Eastside Boxing deny the allegations.
"The recent events have been precipitated by the malicious actions of a select few who — in the wake of failed attempts to further their own interests — are attempting to destroy a gym with a longstanding history of excellence, perseverance, diversity and generosity," they responded in a 31-page written statement emailed to CBC News .
The document includes nearly 50 statements of support for Schuck and the club from male and female members, coaches and staff.
Schuck and the club's board have labelled Jaime Ward-Yassin, a former manager, coach and board member, as the ringleader behind the accusations. Ward-Yassin, a former pro boxer, was the head of the women's programs at Eastside Boxing. She is also Schuck's ex-wife.
The statement accuses Ward-Yassin of trying to take over the gym and of acting in retaliation against accusations of an "unauthorized raise" of $500 per month last August and September.
"This has been a case of one person who behaved dishonestly getting caught and soliciting complaints from others," Schuck wrote in an email.
Ward-Yassin, 40, says her raise, which she had discussed with Schuck and included in financial forecasts, is an unfortunate misunderstanding between her and the club.
She says she has no desire to take over the club, which she considers as a fulfilling side project to her career running a marketing agency.
"The real issue at hand is the mistreatment and harassment of staff and members," Ward-Yassin said. "It's misrepresentation of a claim that the gym is making to provide a safe space for its members."
'Something that is terrifying'
For Accardi, that safe space was violated when she began to suspect her coach, a man 23 years her senior, was flirting with her.
His behaviour was subtle, but worrisome, Accardi says: There was the time he invited her to coffee and touched her arm as they chatted; another time when he called her his "favourite" and another when he told her he would like to meet her dad.
Accardi says she had never experienced anything like it with a coach.
"It is something that is terrifying because you don't know when you should start saying something," Accardi said. "Do you let it continue and progress until it's something serious? Or do you address this as soon as it happens and just be like, 'Hey, I'm not comfortable'?"
Eastside Boxing said in its statement that the coach felt he and Accardi had established an informal tone in their relationship.
"As such, he felt it wasn't inappropriate to greet her with 'Hey beautiful,' and he meant nothing threatening or sexual by it," the club said. "He didn't know she wasn't OK with it and wouldn't have used that greeting if he had known otherwise."
'Different standard for a woman'
Several women told CBC News that relationships between male coaches and female athletes were common at Eastside Boxing.
Muriel, a former employee at the club whose name CBC News has agreed to withhold, says Schuck often praised male coaches for their personal relationships with clients.
But Muriel, 27, says when she told him in February 2020 that she was in a romantic relationship with one of the male coaches, Schuck got angry and told her she had to quit.
"It's definitely a different standard for a woman — it's just not allowed," she said.
Eastside Boxing didn't respond to questions about how the club handles relationships between coaches and athletes.
However, the statement the club provided says Muriel quit after Schuck criticized her work performance. The club says Muriel had pursued two other male coaches, "at times aggressively, despite being told her advances were unwelcome."
Muriel, a small woman who barely speaks above a whisper, admits she had also "had some drama" with the two other coaches, but says she never dated them.
The coach Muriel briefly dated still works at Eastside Boxing. Muriel shared his name with CBC News — he is the same male coach that made Accardi feel uncomfortable several months later.
'He'll explode out of nowhere'
Before Muriel had even started working at Eastside Boxing, people had warned her about Schuck's angry outbursts.
"When he's in a mood that he can't control his emotions, he'll explode out of nowhere. And it's usually from when you disagree with him," Muriel said.
"He'll make sure that you're wrong in that moment and will use humiliation or shame or guilt to prove that."
Muriel says Schuck screamed at her in front of clients on more than one occasion, bringing her to tears while she worked. She says the outbursts often intensified when he was drunk.
Other women CBC News spoke with confirmed that Schuck does scream at people at the club, and has been known to drink on the job and even coach while he was inebriated.
The statement from Eastside Boxing did not address those allegations.
Letters to the board
In February 2020, Muriel sent the board of directors a letter of resignation that said she was leaving because "the bullying will not end."
"I knew that if I hadn't spoken out, it would just happen to the next person," she said.
Unbeknownst to Muriel, her letter would be one of several the board would receive over the next few months. Other staff, coaches and athletes, most of them women, also submitted written complaints about Schuck and Accardi's coach.
In response, several of the complainants received a letter from Schuck's lawyer accusing them of slander.
In November, the board hired an HR consultancy firm to investigate the accusations, but that was suspended after three board members quit.
In Eastside Boxing's written statement, the club says the firm's fees — $20,000 at a time when the club was experiencing financial difficulties because of the pandemic — were too high.
Instead, the club began an internal investigation led by board members Kyndra Moeller and Derrick Hoyt, who "have both had long-standing involvement with the gym and are passionate about its pursuits and the benefits for those it serves."
"When disputes arise in any tight-knit community, the preferred course of action is to attempt to resolve the issues internally before seeking outsiders to investigate or mediate," the club said, adding that as of January 2021 all staff have taken part in a half-day respectful workplace training seminar and the club has updated its bullying and harassment policies.
But the complainants say they didn't trust the internal investigation, which has now concluded, and they doubt the results are impartial. Eastside Boxing said several complainants declined to participate; two of them did.
Accardi and others say they came forward because they believed in Eastside Boxing's mandate and wanted to make it better, not destroy it.
Ward-Yassin says, with a growing number of women entering the world of combat sports, the "old school" culture that enabled the type of behaviour female athletes have experienced needs to go.
"I see this type of microaggression and misogyny in combat sports all of the time. And honestly, most people just kind of are like, 'It's boxing. What are we going to do?'" Ward-Yassin said.
"As time has gone on, I have realized that it is not OK."
Do you have more to add to this story? Contact reporter Maryse Zeidler at firstname.lastname@example.org