Hockey Canada scandal is not an isolated event. Forceful government action is past due
Allegations of psychological, physical and sexual abuse have come to light in multiple sports organizations
This column is an opinion by Alison Clement and Sandrine Desforges, Master of Public Policy candidates at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
Safe and inclusive sports should always be the primary goal ahead of winning medals, gaining sponsorships or spotlighting brands, especially when it comes to protecting youth. But the blatant mishandling of sexual misconduct within sports organizations across Canada has proved that winning and protecting reputations matters most, regardless of the human cost.
Abusive sports culture has long been silenced with poor excuses from "locker room talk" to "boys will be boys;" cultures which have been institutionalized at all levels of athletics. This year, news of Hockey Canada using $7.6 million dollars from a reserve fund of player registration fees to cover nine sexual assault or abuse claims sent shockwaves across the country. An additional $1.3 million was paid through Hockey Canada's insurance to settle 12 more sexual misconduct claims during the same time period.
Despite mounting public pressure, along with the suspension of federal funding, Hockey Canada continued to resist change in senior leadership and defensively argued that the organization was being used to scapegoat hockey as "a centrepiece for toxic culture."
Even with intense media coverage in the weeks after the initial discovery — alongside weeklong parliamentary hearings where Hockey Canada was summoned to testify in front of the House of Commons' Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage — it took months for two additional funds used to cover sexual assault claims to surface. This raises the question if a proper investigation was conducted in the first place.
Toxic culture not unique
Hockey Canada's toxic culture is not isolated in the sports world. Allegations of psychological, physical and sexual abuse have come to light in multiple sports across the country, including rowing, boxing, rugby, skiing and soccer.
In 2018, a lawsuit filed against Alpine Canada by former skiers said the organization covered up sexual abuse by a coach, in part, to prevent a loss of sponsorships. In May, more than 100 Canadian boxers sent letters calling for the resignation of Boxing Canada's high-performance director, claiming that the organization has cultivated a toxic culture of abuse and silence. Both instances suggest athletes were afraid to speak up earlier for fear of being punished and left off national and Olympic teams.
Despite athletes' push for government action in recent years, response has been minimal. Recently, 500 gymnasts signed a second letter criticizing the federal government's inaction, and Bobsleigh and skeleton athletes similarly sent a second request to the government, saying that the ongoing lack of acknowledgement and inaction to address any of their concerns is continuing to create long-term, detrimental harm to athletes across Canada.
After years of complaints, in 2021, then Canadian Heritage minister Steven Guilbeault announced the creation of a "new independent safe sport mechanism" which became the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner (OSIC). The office is tasked to oversee the implementation of the newly established "Universal Code of Conduct to Prevent and Address Maltreatment in Sport."
In June 2022, Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge also announced that all federally-funded sport organizations will be mandated to register to the OSIC, and sign and comply with the code of conduct before April 1, 2023.
A transition period of 10 months to sign on to the OSIC seems excessively lenient as it leaves room for organizations to "clean up" any misconduct that might have not been dealt with properly in the past. Also, the code of conduct lists a series of possible sanctions in case of violation of its provisions, ranging from an apology to probation, suspension and even permanent ineligibility. Yet, those sanctions are still dependent on the signatory organizations' internal policies, which could potentially leave a lot of loopholes to foster and overlook bad behaviour.
Even though these measures are a step in the right direction, it is time for bolder and more innovative policy approaches to address this systemic issue.
First, the federal government must exert more pressure on organizations to register to the OSIC and comply with the code immediately. It also needs to stipulate clear consequences for non-compliance, and forbid organizations from using their own internal policies to cover up abuse.
Secondly, the OSIC must commission an independent inquiry into the Canadian sport system. The leaders of the inquiry should be impartial and charged with providing real, tangible and transformative recommendations to the government. Experts in the fields of sexual prevention, as well as physical, psychological and emotional abuse, should also be included. These recommendations must address the needs of survivors while providing clear repercussions for offenders.
Additionally, OSIC must ensure transparent monitoring and evaluation of an organization's progress and response to misconduct. Mechanisms for financial transparency on the settlement of sexual abuse claims and mandatory reporting of sexual violence allegations must be implemented so that an organization's ability to address misconduct can be monitored and evaluated by an impartial body.
Furthermore, clear instruction on how to develop fair and equitable complaint processes must also be established, including the removal of nondisclosure and one-sided confidentiality agreements, which have traditionally been used to silence survivors.
We need to move beyond the current discourse that pits athletes and sports organizations against each other. Proper support from the federal government will better equip national sports organizations with the tools they need to develop safer and more inclusive environments.
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