Letter calls for Canada to change how it deals with sport harassment cases

A group of Canadian sport leaders have lent their voice to the growing chorus calling for an independent body to handle cases of harassment and abuse. A coalition of some three dozen sport organizations, researchers and athletes who sent an open letter Friday to Kirsty Duncan, Canada's Minister of Science, Sport and People with Disabilities.

Sheldon Kennedy, Chandra Crawford among coalition who sent open letter

Minister of Science, Sport and Persons with Disabilities Kirsty Duncan is expected to present a proposal on dealing with athlete abuse in Canada to cabinet on Tuesday. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

A group of Canadian sport leaders have lent their voice to the growing chorus calling for an independent body to handle cases of harassment and abuse.

Former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy and Olympic cross-country skiing gold medallist Chandra Crawford were among the coalition of some three dozen sport organizations, researchers and athletes who sent an open letter Friday to Kirsty Duncan, Canada's Minister of Science, Sport and People with Disabilities.

"Canada is at a crossroads in its efforts to eliminate the scourge of gender-based violence in sport," the coalition wrote. "It is clear that the 1996 Sport Canada policy to prevent harassment and abuse in sport has not been effective."

Proposal Expected

Duncan is expected to present a proposal on dealing with athlete abuse in Canada to cabinet on Tuesday.

Safe sport has been governed through the Sport Canada Accountability Framework since it was implemented in 1996 in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal involving former junior hockey coach Graham James and Kennedy. Kennedy founded the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre in the wake of abuse at the hands of James.

Sports must have a safe sport policy, and a designated individual to handle complaints, in place to receive government funding.

But critics complain policies aren't adequately applied.

There are two policy directions being proposed, according to Gretchen Kerr, a kinesiology and physical education professor at the University of Toronto. Canada's national sports organizations (NSOs) have proposed developing a sport-by-sport system of self-regulation, with more consistent enforcement by Sport Canada. And a coalition of multi-sport organizations, researchers and retired athletes have proposed establishing a single, independent, arm's length system of education, investigation and compliance.

"The undersigned strongly urge you to endorse the second approach and put in place the steps to realize it," the letter to Duncan said.

"It's become quite divisive ... there are clearly two distinct points of view on how to move this whole agenda forward," said Kerr, one of the signees. "A complainant has the option to take it to the NSO, the PSO (provincial sport organization) or an independent body, but it all flows through the NSO. And so the NSO is still playing a triage role, determining whether a complaint is major or minor, and whether it should be handled in-house, or should be handled independently.

"The other problem is the conflict of interest that currently exists, if the complaint goes to the NSO and it involves an Olympic coach or whatever, there are real implications for the NSO and even the staff, if that's brought forward because the funding for NSOs depends on the team's performance."

High-profile cases

Canada has had its share of high-profile sex abuse cases in sport. Marcel Aubut resigned as Canadian Olympic Committee president in 2015 after an investigation over numerous sexual harassment complaints.

In June, several former members of Canada's ski team spoke publicly about the abuse suffered at the hands of former coach Bertrand Charest in the 1990s. Charest was convicted last year of 37 offences of sexual assault and exploitation.

Last month, the sexual assault trial of former Canadian women's gymnastics coach Dave Brubaker wrapped up in Sarnia, Ont. Brubaker has pleaded not guilty to one count of sexual assault and one count of sexual exploitation, and Justice Deborah Austin is expected to deliver her decision on Feb. 13.

More coalitions

Olympic champion Erica Wiebe was among a group of Canadian wrestlers who wrote an open letter to Duncan last month appealing for a third-party body to handle complaints.

"Sport-by-sport self-regulation means that there will be as many different approaches to gender-based violence as there are sports bodies, a situation that is inconsistent with the principles of uniform treatment and the values of Canadian sport," Friday's letter said. "There is clear evidence of the failure of self-regulation. A 2016 study of 40 NSOs showed that after 22 years of Sport Canada's requirement to have a publicly accessible policy, many of the NSOs had limited policies, often hidden on their website, or no policy at all."

The coalition argued that sport in Canada is the only remaining child-populated domain that is self-regulating and autonomous, leaving young people vulnerable to harassment and abuse. They stressed that no country has ever developed an effective policy for sport organizations to self-regulate harassment and abuse.

The coalition is proposing a universal policy that has the capacity to investigate all allegations and provide counselling to those affected; mandatory application to all federally-funded sports; focus on education and prevention; and eliminating financial barriers to complainants and sports by providing appropriate funding and fee structures.