Ottawa establishing investigation unit, national toll-free helpline to address abuse in sport
One month after a CBC News and Sports investigation revealed at least 222 coaches involved in amateur sports over 20 years have been convicted of sexual offences, Minister of Science and Sport Kirsty Duncan announced more initiatives to end what she calls "dirty secrets" in the country's athletic landscape.
On Wednesday afternoon, Duncan introduced an investigation unit for national sport organizations, multi-sport service organizations and Canadian sport centres. She says it will be an independent unit sports groups can call in to investigate all alleged incidents of harassment, abuse and discrimination.
The minister also announced a national toll-free confidential helpline for victims and witnesses of abuse in sport.
"Since day one I've made ending abuse in sport my priority. These are another two measures in a long line of measures to protect our athletes," Duncan told CBC. "Now these sport groups can reach out to the investigative unit at any time and ask them to do an investigation."
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The third-party investigation unit has been set up through the established Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada. This is an independent centre available to members of the national sport community and will take on new duties to help resolve sport disputes.
The new pilot service to help facilitate investigations will ensure sport organizations are not investigating their own members, the minister said.
"What we've heard from our athletes is they need a safe place. They don't always feel comfortable going to the sport organization for fear of retribution," Duncan said.
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"My greatest concern is that power differential. My whole life has been sport — athlete, coach and judge. When I am coaching my number one priority is the health and safety of my athletes."
Marc-André Fabien, president of Canadian Paralympic Committee, praised the new initiatives.
"The Canadian Paralympic Committee commends Minister Duncan for her work to provide safeguards for athletes and participants at all levels of sport and we stand behind these new measures," Fabrien said in a statement. "These new processes are critical towards combatting harassment, abuse, and discrimination in sport."
Helpline a 'safe place'
The helpline will be available to anyone seven days a week, 12 hours a day and will be answered by psychologists, psychotherapists and counsellors.
"This will be a safe place for people to go to be able to voice their concerns in a safe manner," Duncan said.
"That number will be available to everyone. Victims, athletes, witnesses of abuse. There can be no bystander effect," she said.
The minister says the helpline will provide advice about what steps to take next, whether that's going to police, child protection services or to an existing provincial or territorial resource.
"If someone sees a child being harmed in any way, none of us can stand by. We have to act," said Duncan.
She adds the helpline can also be used by people to simply speak in confidence to a neutral third party to get the help they need. It serves as a professional listening and referral service.
"The only thing I care about is to make sure our athletes are protected so they can do what they love. Everyone should have a safe, quality experience. Sport gives you so much. It was always my refuge. It was the place I went to feel rejuvenated. It should be that way for every child," Duncan said.
Duncan is a former gymnast who turned to coaching and judging.
The minister's department plans a social media campaign to ensure sport programs across Canada have access to the toll-free number, which is: 1-888-83-SPORT.
"We've been working with the provinces and territories, sport organizations, and of course, it all starts with the athletes. My goal is to put our athletes and children at the centre of everything we do in sport," Duncan said.
CBC's investigation into sexual offences
Calls for action followed an investigation by CBC News and Sports that revealed at least 222 coaches involved in amateur sports over 20 years have been convicted of sex offences involving over 600 victims under age 18.
The CBC News and Sports investigation involved searching through thousands of court records and media articles, and visiting courthouses across Canada. What emerged, for the first time, was a detailed database of sexual offences committed by amateur athletic coaches.
The charges include offences such as sexual assault, sexual exploitation, child luring, and making or possessing child pornography. Most, but not all, of the victims were athletes training with a coach; in all cases, the accused was charged between 1998 and 2018, but the offences may have occurred earlier.
Wednesday's announcement follows a number of initiatives announced by Minister Duncan in the last month including safe sport summits geared at developing a national code of conduct.
With files from Jamie Strashin