Road To The Olympic Games


Critics question COC's capacity for change after harassment scandal

As the Canadian Olympic Committee meets in Regina at the end of another tumultuous week, there are increasing doubts about the organization's ability to change a culture in which sexual harassment allegedly continued unabated for years.

Marcel Aubut affair continues to haunt troubled organization

COC president Tricia Smith is trying to lead her organization out of the shadow of the Marcel Aubut scandal, but some observers doubt that the current leadership is capable of bringing about meaningful change. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

As the Canadian Olympic Committee meets in Regina this weekend, there are increasing doubts about the organization's ability to change a culture in which sexual harassment allegedly continued unabated for years.

It's been another tumultuous week for the COC. Jean-Luc Brassard abruptly quit his post as chef de mission for Canada's Olympic team just months before the Rio Games. He told CBC News he'd reached a breaking point over the COC's handling of the Marcel Aubut affair.

Aubut was forced out of his job as president of the COC in October after allegations surfaced of unwanted sexual advances and touching during his time with the organization, which included his run as president from 2010 until he stepped down. Aubut vowed to seek counselling. He has not been charged criminally.

"It is not true that we didn't have the capability of stopping this," Brassard said. "I don't know why nothing was done over the four or five years."

The COC hired prominent Toronto employment lawyer Christine Thomlinson to conduct a review of the organization's policies and practices. The summary report revealed a culture in which "a majority of COC staff interviewed reported experiencing or witnessing harassment (both sexual and personal) during the president's tenure, both inside and outside of the COC's offices." 

The investigation also revealed allegations against Aubut dating back to 2008, when he was a COC board member.

'They should have stepped down immediately'

Toronto employment lawyer Howard Levitt said the COC-commissioned report won't change anything, calling it a "whitewash."

Levitt finds it curious that the COC's senior leadership, which the report says was "unable or unwilling to take steps to address" suggestions of sexual harassment in the workplace, is now being cast as the architect of change.

"It was them deciding to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of the organization's money to commission a report to tell us what we already knew," Levitt said. "They should have stepped down immediately. They knew about it. They replaced their resignations with a report to make themselves look good, to sanitize their conduct, and it's frankly scandalous."

Former Olympic synchronized swimmer Sylvie Fré​chette also questions how the existing COC board of directors, including president Tricia Smith, can be trusted to bring about change.

"How can you keep the same people that the report said witnessed [misconduct] and did nothing for years?" said Fréchette, who worked with the COC until 2007.

"There was a paper trail for years about this. It's not something where you question, is it right or is it wrong? It is wrong with capital letters, and those people are going to stay?" Fré​chette said, her voice rising in anger.

COC brass ignored complaint: accuser

The COC has never released the full report and has never outlined the details of sexual harassment complaints made by its employees.

But Montreal lawyer Amelia Salehabadi-Fouques has made her allegations against Aubut public. Salehabadi-Fouques alleges Aubut acted inappropriately with her on three separate occasions.

The former Canadian Soccer Association member said the final incident occurred while she was attending a 2014 FIFA U-20 World Cup match in Montreal.

"It was halftime and I was walking to the VIP section, and [Aubut] came to me, my 14-year-old son was there, and he asked me, 'When are you going to sleep with me?"

She said she quickly told at least three members of the COC board, but nothing happened.

"I talked about it to Walter Sieber, who was on the COC board. I told Dick Pound, I told it to Charmaine Crooks. So when the COC came out and said it didn't know Marcel had problems with women, I was so shocked and so angry because I had told them."

Top COC officials 'can't be trusted': Levitt

In the wake of all this, Tricia Smith has apologized and vowed change. Three executives were fired. The COC also committed to implementing the eight recommendations made in the review, which include:

  • Instituting a duty to report harassment.
  • An awareness campaign and training on workplace behaviour.
  • A process to allow employees to register concerns about the harassment policy.

How is the COC actually implementing these recommendations? Does it think its present leadership team can be the ones to bring about change? We don't know. The COC didn't respond to repeated requests for comment for this story, including requests to speak with Smith.

"It's been months and we still don't know anything. I'm not sure what the next step is," said Fré​chette.

Levitt believes it likely doesn't matter.

"Those recommendations are just anodyne recommendations that someone could have gotten off of the internet, and frankly recommendations that should have been pursued without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a report."

Levitt said people should be skeptical about the entire process.

"Will they implement the recommendations? Maybe. But the people at the top, the people who are ultimately the directors, can't be trusted, because they have been complicit by not doing anything."

'It scares me'

For those close to the Olympic movement, like University of Toronto professor Bruce Kidd, the status quo is not an option.

"The [COC's annual general meeting] is coming up in Regina and the expectation is that [Tricia Smith] will make a clear statement about what is being done," said Kidd, who competed for Canada at the 1964 Summer Olympics.

Kidd said the COC has no other choice.

"I think Tricia needs to reassure the membership, and because of the symbolic role it plays across the country, that the COC is an organization that practises and seeks to strengthen a culture of inclusion," Kidd said. "And where out-of-hand activity occurs, it has a system to investigate and take appropriate action.

"I see the COC as the representative of the Olympic movement in Canada. Part of that commitment is to the highest values of inclusion, respect for others … and if the COC can't create a culture of inclusion, it can't represent the Olympic movement properly."

Fré​chette said the entire Olympic community is watching what happens in Regina this weekend and in the days leading up to the Rio Games.

"I just hope they know what they are doing," she said. "If they keep exactly the same people in place and we lose people like Jean-Luc, it scares me."


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