Brassard says he resigned over lingering Marcel Aubut scandal
Claims he was told to 'stop asking questions' about sexual harassment claims
Jean-Luc Brassard told a different story Wednesday about his abrupt resignation as Canada's chef de mission for the 2016 Rio Games.
On Monday, the Canadian Olympic Committee said Brassard was leaving the high-profile post for "business and personal reasons" just months before the Games.
But Brassard says he left because of his mounting frustration with the COC's handling of the Marcel Aubut affair, as many had suspected. The more he knew, it seems, the more conflicted he felt about his role.
"There's 50 people working in the Toronto office, 50 in the Montreal office," Brassard told Radio-Canada in a French-language interview on Wednesday. "The offices are too small for people not to have known what was going on.
"It is not true that we didn't have the capability of stopping this. I don't know why nothing was done over the four or five years," Brassard said.
The COC has been mired in controversy since last October when Aubut, its former president, was forced to step down after allegations of unwanted sexual advances and touching. In the wake of Aubut's departure, the COC brought in a human resources firm to conduct a review of the organization's policies and practices.
The investigators concluded that a majority of the more than 100 staff interviewed had either experienced or witnessed alleged harassment by Aubut.
"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," a summary of the report said.
The full review, which has never been made public, included eight recommendations and the COC vowed to implement them all. They include instituting a duty to report harassment, an awareness campaign and training on workplace behaviour, and a process to allow employees to register concerns about the harassment policy.
It's unknown what has actually been done.
Brassard was critical Wednesday about the COC's lack of transparency on how, or if, those recommendations are being successfully implemented.
"There was an elephant in the room and it was impossible to turn my back. When things are going well for the athletes, the media is there," Brassard told Radio-Canada. "But when things are going bad you also have to respond. But the COC, they closed their doors and let rumours run rampant."
Back in February, Brassard was already expressing concerns about how the COC was handling the fallout from the Aubut affair.
"If I have the impression I can't do anything for the employees who are still hurt by this, I would consider that a failure, and I might have to distance myself," he said.
None of this surprises those close to Brassard.
"Jean-Luc is a very ethical man, everything has to be honest and right and well done," said friend and two-time Olympic medallist Sylvie Frechette. "He's a perfectionist. To me, him stepping down probably means the response has not been up to par with his way of dealing with a situation like that.
"The more he got informed and days went by, you could actually see the emotional, psychological and physical change in him, just realizing how big this is."
"Jean-Luc is a very strong leader in the sport community and I know that with the new leadership of the COC are taking those allegations very seriously," added Carla Qualtrough, Canada's sports minister, in a scrum with reporters. "I personally have a ton of confidence in Tricia Smith, their new president, both in terms of her personal integrity and the way she leads and governs organizations …
"I know that what they're doing to make sure their work environment is harassment-free, which of course as the Government of Canada we have zero tolerance for sexual harassment in the workplace. I've a ton of confidence in Tricia."
Brassard said a few months have taught him a lot.
"This whole situation really opened my eyes to feminist issues and the struggle and difficulty it takes for a woman to even put forward these kind of complaints," Brassard said. "I have great admiration for the [whistleblower] employee from Toronto who finally had enough of Aubut and stood up."
Pressure to act
Olympic historian Bruce Kidd has been watching this situation closely. The University of Toronto professor and 1964 Olympian is also an honourary member of the COC.
"[Brassard] is quite unhappy with the COC and this gives him an opportunity to step down," Kidd said, adding that it will be interesting to see what impact Brassard's decision has.
"His departure will certainly continue to pressure [COC president] Tricia Smith and the other leaders of the COC to implement the recommendations of the investigation report and to put in place steps that will change the culture as quickly as possible."
It seems unlikely that push will come from the man tapped as Brassard's replacement.
Curt Harnett is a former Olympian and was the chef de mission for Team Canada at the recent Pan Am Games in Toronto.
He appears to be on board with how the COC has handled the Aubut affair and its fallout.
"I think the [COC] has seen some trying times and is doing everything to move forward as well as it can. I feel comfortable with what's happening," Harnett told reporters.
"I think the report that was released, the process that they're undertaking to fulfil those areas and move forward... I have quite a lot of faith in that. Quite frankly, I wouldn`t accept the role if I didn't."
The COC did not respond to requests for comment for this story. A spokesperson said Smith was not available for an interview this week.