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Sport minister Duncan 'searching for actions' to combat abuse of athletes

Canada's Sport Minister Kirsty Duncan applauded Wrestling Canada on Tuesday for being transparent about unhealthy and unsafe training environments in the sport, after the national sport organization commissioned an independent review to investigate reports of sexual abuse.

Applauds Wrestling Canada for commissioning report on unhealthy coaching environments

Minister of Sport Kirsty Duncan announced in June tougher measures to eliminate harassment, abuse and discrimination in sport. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

Canada's Sport Minister Kirsty Duncan says her mandate from Day 1 has been the health and safety of athletes.

Duncan applauded Wrestling Canada on Tuesday for being transparent about unhealthy and unsafe training environments in the sport, after the national sport organization commissioned an independent review to investigate reports of sexual abuse.

The minister's comments came a day after Canadian wrestlers penned an open letter to Duncan to stress the importance of an independent body to handle cases of harassment or abuse.

"We want to get it right," Duncan said. "From Day 1, protecting the health and safety of our athletes has been my priority.

"Wrestling Canada, would there have been a report before?" she added. "Now we have a report from Wrestling Canada, and that's encouraging that that sport is looking inward. On social media, I was clear thanking them for the report being done, but said 'now I expect change."'

Whether or not Duncan will heed the athletes' request for an independent third party remains to be seen.

"We find it concerning that National Sporting Organizations (NSOs) are left to self-regulate complaints pertaining to safety, harassment and abuse," the wrestlers wrote to Duncan. "Regardless of the intentions of the NSO, the current system of NSO led investigations contain conflicts of interest that either directly bias the process or create the perception of bias. This has contributed to a strong sense of mistrust from athletes and a fear of reprisal that prevents adequate disclosure and reporting."

Report documents unsafe coaching practices

The letter stemmed from an independent review by lawyer David Bennett that was commissioned by Wrestling Canada after anonymous complaints of sexual abuse. Bennett's "Report Concerning Independent Review of Coaching Culture for Wrestling Canada Lutte" outlined unhealthy and unsafe coaching practices.

"As athletes, we believe that an independent body is needed to review these complaints . . . an independent body would demonstrate the federal government's support of Safe Sport and would begin the process of restoring athletes' trust in their governing bodies," the wrestlers wrote.

The Sport Canada Accountability Framework was implemented in 1996 in the wake of a sexual abuse scandal involving former junior hockey coach Graham James, above. (Bill Becker/Canadian Press)

Safe sport has been governed through the Sport Canada Accountability Framework since it was implemented in 1996 in the wake of a sexual abuse scandal involving former junior hockey coach Graham James. National sport organizations must have a safe sport policy — and a designated individual to handle complaints — in place to receive government funding.

Critics have claimed policies aren't always satisfactorily applied. And depending on the size and budget of an NSO, harassment officers can be anyone from a volunteer to the organization's CEO.

"At times it doesn't feel safe or comfortable for an athlete to come forward because we don't want to put our goal, our lifelong dream of making an Olympic Games in jeopardy," Olympic gold medallist Erica Wiebe told The Canadian Press. "Sometimes it's this fear of keeping the status quo, rather than shifting the boat, because there's been no independent body that we can go to and feel safe."

Watershed moment

Retired skier Kelly VanderBeek tweeted her support Tuesday, writing: "NSOs protecting the coaches (and public optics) over the athletes is something I've witnessed & experienced throughout my athletic career. A third-party body to handle cases of harassment & abuse is a needed step in structuring change."

Duncan, who's also Canada's minister of science, assumed minister of sport and persons with disabilities duties last January. With the #MeToo movement plus sexual harassment and assault cases in Alpine Canada, the Canadian Olympic Committee, and Gymnastics Canada, plus the high-profile sentencing of U.S. gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, her tenure comes during a watershed moment in sport.

"From Week 1 in this job, my priority has been putting athletes at the centre of the system. And there is nothing more important to me, there's nothing more important than protecting the health and safety of our athletes," Duncan reiterated. "My two priorities that I went to the department with, one was abuse, discrimination, and harassment, and the second one was concussions."

Duncan announced in June tougher measures to eliminate harassment, abuse and discrimination in sport. To be eligible for government funding, each NSO must disclose any incidents of abuse or harassment to the minister, must provide — within its framework — access to an independent third party to address abuse and harassment, and must provide mandatory training on harassment and abuse to members by April of 2020.

"I've been clear from the beginning that this is a start, it is going to take all of us working all together, it's going to be the coaches, the athletes, the families, governments, all of us to ensure a safe-sport environment," Duncan said.

'Searching for actions'

The 2018 federal budget also committed $30 million toward gender equality in sport by 2035. With that aim, Duncan established the Working Group on Gender Equity in Sport in April, an illustrious collection of sports minds that includes hockey star Hayley Wickenheiser, soccer coach John Herdman, and Waneek Horn-Miller, an Olympian in water polo and an advocate for First Nations rights.

"What I said to them when I called them 'I'm not looking for another report. We know the issues, we know the problems. What I'm searching for is actions that I can implement,"' Duncan said.

The non-partisan subcommittee on concussions will also reconvene next month. The sub-committee, chaired by Liberal MP Peter Fonseca, has been tasked with delivering recommendations on how to make sports safer and protecting youth from concussions.

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