As It Happens·Q&A

Canada's sports minister vows to fight culture of abuse in hockey, gymnastics

Between the Hockey Canada allegations, a toxic culture in gymnastics and a controversial World Cup in Qatar, Sports Minister Pascale St-Onge says she wasn’t expecting her first year in politics to be so challenging.

‘It's been a pretty tough year for sports,’ says Pascale St-Onge

A close-up of a woman with a ponytail.
Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge says this past year has been full of challenges, but she's committed to improving sports cultures and systems in Canada. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Sports Minister Pascale St-Onge says she wasn't expecting her first year in politics to be so challenging.

This past year has seen explosive allegations of sexual abuse, misuse of funds, racism and homophobia against Hockey Canada, the nation's governing body for ice hockey. 

Gymnasts, meanwhile, have been calling for an independent review of their sport, which has been riddled with allegations of widespread sexual abuse. 

And as Canadian soccer players headed to the World Cup in Qatar, human rights organizations called out the host country for its mistreatment of LGBTQ people and use of unpaid or underpaid migrant workers, many of whom died building the infrastructure to host the tournament. 

"Sport usually is all about good news and feel-good stories. And this year, there's been plenty of scandals and very difficult stories to hear about," St-Onge told As It Happens host Nil Köksal. "It's been a pretty tough year for sports."

The following is an excerpt from that interview. 

On the issue of Hockey Canada, their new board is finally in place. How confident are you that the organization is actually ready to make meaningful change and turn a corner?

We see that they followed [independent governance review leader] Judge [Thomas] Cromwell's advice in regard to how the new board should be nominated, and that they should consider people from outside the usual hockey structure to have new expertise and certainly more diversity around the table. So I think it's the right first step. 

Hockey Canada is our national team, but we've heard stories in junior hockey and provincial and territorial hockey associations. It's really a cultural shift that we need to see in the world of hockey — yes, at the national level, but all across Canada.

Have you had conversations with the new [Hockey Canada] chair, Hugh Fraser, yet?

Not so far. I'm looking forward to meeting the new board in 2023 and discussing the steps that they're taking to improve their inner culture and to make sure that there's more prevention and training for coaches, for, of course, players, and how they're going to fight the culture of sexual violence.

How will you measure success for that organization when you do meet with the board

We're going to want to see, you know, more about the people that they're going to hire to provide that specific education and training for their players. 

And, for sure, having more financial transparency. That was something also that was extremely preoccupying, the existence of those funds that were used to cover up horrible allegations.

Four middle-aged men in suits sit side by side at a table in front of microphones.
Former Hockey Canada CEO Scott Smith, second from right, and the entire board of directors stepped down after a retired Supreme Court justice recommended they do so as part of his review of the organization's shaky leadership. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Back in October, we spoke to a former gymnast, Amelia Cline…. She told us that she feels abuse in gymnastics is "endemic" … and she felt disappointed and fed up with what she called your government's inaction. You know, [gymnasts] have been pushing for an independent investigation. So I wonder what you would say, Minister, to Amelia Cline and other gymnasts?

I want to thank them for their courage in speaking up about what they've been through in the gymnastics system, whether it's at the grassroots level, the provincial or the national level. And, for sure, I'm listening to everything that they're asking.

I'm working with my counterparts at the provincial and territorial levels as well to make sure that there are independent mechanisms being put in place everywhere, all across Canada, so that athletes at all levels have somewhere to turn to when they're facing situations of abuse and maltreatment, [and] so that there are independent mechanisms that can investigate, that can also sanction coaches and officials, that can also make recommendations for sports to improve.

We've created the Office of the Sports Integrity Commissioner at the federal level. And now we're working so that no athletes, no matter the level, fall through the cracks. Also, there's two parliamentary committees that are working on the issue of safe sports. 

And as for myself, I've announced already that I would review the whole funding framework [for] the contracts that the federal government signed with the national sports organizations. 

Olympian and water polo star … Waneek Horn-Miller [told a parliamentary committee that] we cannot rely on current competing athletes to fight within their sports. "I would like an inquiry, but we can't have another inquiry that has no teeth. We have to do something." And that's very similar to what Ms. Cline told us with respect to gymnastics … so what would you say to [those] who feel that an inquiry with teeth is what would help change things more quickly?

Of course I hear them. I see them. I am listening to all recommendations and suggestions.

It's never appropriate to talk about some limitations that we might have when we're hearing situations of abuse and maltreatment. And my heart is really breaking for these athletes. But … we do have … issues about jurisdiction that needs to be worked on. 

For example, when we're hearing about child abuse or situations that happen in local clubs or provincial clubs, it's out of my federal jurisdiction. So, of course, I do believe that an investigation is needed. Now finding the right way to do it, we still need to work on that. 

We'll see in 2023 what we can do to answer athletes' calls.

WATCH | Waneek Horn-Miller addresses parliamentary committee:

Olympian says athletes can’t be made responsible for fighting abuse in sport

6 months ago
Duration 0:24
In her testimony before the standing committee on the status of women, Olympic water polo player Waneek Horn-Miller discusses her role as a retired athlete and her recommendations for the committee.

You were very clear and open about your decision not to go to Qatar for the World Cup that just wrapped up. Millions and millions of Canadians were certainly watching. But there was criticism of the Trudeau government for not taking more of a stand and being more vocal in its criticism and underlining the concerns about where the World Cup was happening. Do you wish the government had taken more of a stand?

We're always extremely vocal when it comes to human rights and protecting the LGBTQ community all around the world.

We need to be present and we need to voice our concern. And we need to be very clear about where we stand on labour issues, labour rights, and also any other kind of human rights. And that's exactly what we've done.

That's why it was important that [International Development] Minister [Harjit] Sajjan went and had discussions with his counterparts, as well as other countries also voicing their concerns about human rights in Qatar.

We did have a big good news story about sport in this country — the women's soccer league. We did an interview about that recently on this program. How are you feeling that that league is now closer to becoming a reality?

I think it's so great. Our women's team has been doing great. Whether we're talking about soccer or hockey or any other sport. You know, in the last Olympics, most of the medals and the great performances came from our Canadian women. So I feel like it's a great time for women in sport.

Two women sit on chairs on an empty soccer field.
Canadian soccer superstars Christine Sinclair, left, and Diana Matheson, right, seen above during an interview with CBC News' Adrienne Arsenault, announced this year that a professional women’s league will launch in Canada in 2025. (CBC)

One final question, Minister, before we let you go…. What can you promise the parents of young athletes out there, and those athletes themselves, about where we will be in terms of safety in sport for them this time next year?

Athletes are going to be safer when, collectively, everyone that's involved in this sports system changes the way that they react in situations of abuse and maltreatment. 

I truly believe that the people have awakened to this reality, and that all of us feel concerned. And we're going to do what it takes. 

Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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