Why federal funding isn't enough to stop abuse in Canadian sports
Canada is spending millions to stop abuse in sports, but is it making a difference?
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Last year, the federal government made headlines by announcing a $16-million investment over the next three years in "safe sport" — a blanket term for efforts to rid sports of sexual abuse, bullying, toxic culture, concussions and other dangerous elements. As instances of children being sexually abused by coaches continue to occur nationwide, the government's funding announcement may have given parents the impression that something substantial is finally being done about it, and that safe sport is a well-funded, well-organized initiative.
However, the latest set of stories in the Shattered Trust series — part of a continuing investigation by CBC News and CBC Sports into abuse in amateur sports in Canada — paint a different picture. In their reporting, Jamie Strashin and Lori Ward found widespread frustration with the top-down, disconnected manner in which the problem of abuse in Canadian sports is being addressed.
One major criticism is that the vast majority of resources to prevent abuse in Canadian sports go to national organizations whose primary role is serving the relatively small number of elite athletes competing at the national and international level. For the most part, those resources do not trickle down to the smaller, community-based clubs where most children play their sports — and where most cases of abuse in youth sports occur.
"It remains an absolute blind spot in the system," said Marco Di Buono, president of Canadian Tire Jumpstart Charities, one of the largest youth sports charities in Canada. "99-plus per cent of the cases happen at the community level, but 90-plus per cent of the attention and the effort goes at the elite level of sport."
WATCH | CBC Sports' Jamie Strashin details federal, grass-roots struggle to maintain safe sport:
At the grassroots level, Di Buono says, safe sport is still "nothing more than a compliance exercise" and "there is a lack of guidance and leadership." Noni Classen of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection in Winnipeg agrees, saying there's "not much" by way of accountability and oversight in place. "If someone comes forward with a concern, we don't know exactly what to do," she said. Marci Morris of the Ottawa Sport Council, which provides guidance on safe sport to local clubs in the national capital region, describes the Canadian sports system as "very siloed. The national doesn't touch the provincial who doesn't talk to the community level."
The $16 million that Ottawa committed to safe sport last year will mostly be devoted to the creation and operation of the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner, tasked with administering a code of conduct for national sport organizations and investigating athlete complaints. All federally funded sport organizations are required to sign on to the OSIC-centred Abuse-Free Sport program to continue to receive federal funding, said Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge.
But many national sport organizations are already criticizing the limitations of the OSIC. It will protect "an exceptionally small percentage of athletes," at Swimming Canada, said Suzanne Pollens, the group's director of operations and sport development. "The masses — the 99 per cent — I personally don't know the resources that get down to that level." The CEO of Water Polo Canada worries the new arrangement sets up NSOs to take the fall as they don't have the resources to deal with abuse at the local level. "When something happens" — an arrest, allegation or other scandal — "the public thinks that NSOs aren't doing their job," said Martin Goulet. "Or the minister throws all of the blame at the NSOs. We don't have jurisdiction at the local level."
Closer to the local level, even large provincial organizations overseeing popular youth sports say they are struggling to protect young athletes. Ontario Hockey Federation executive director Phil McKee says "there's not a universal hiring process" for coaches across the 800-odd associations the OHF oversees. "There's not a universal evaluation process of volunteers," McKee said. "That's the part that scares me." Paul Sir, executive director of the Alberta Basketball Association, says that in his 15 years on the job the organization's funding "has gone down 45 per cent. We have just received less and less and less money … and yet we get more and more requests and directives around safe sport."
WATCH | Ex sport minister says feds failed to take adequate action to foster safe sports culture:
While most safe-sport advocates agree that establishing the OSIC is a good start, many are demanding the federal government also commission a full, independent inquiry into abuse in sport. One recent call for an inquiry came from a group of academics who cited "widespread reports of sexual, physical and psychological abuse of athletes throughout the nation's sport system." Another came last week from former Minister of Sport Kirsty Duncan, who told CBC Sports' Devin Heroux that the Trudeau government failed to build on her efforts to prevent harassment, abuse and discrimination in sports since she was dropped from cabinet in 2019.
Even St-Onge admits Ottawa's efforts are far removed from the local level. "Sport is under the provinces' and territories' responsibilities. What the federal government does is actually fund the national teams that represent us on the international stage," explained the Minister of Sport, who said provinces can sign on with OSIC or form their own, similar organizations to deal with local clubs.
With seemingly everyone at the top claiming their hands are tied, lasting change is probably going to have to start with those most affected by abuse in sports. Among athletes, gymnasts have been the most vocal with their calls for reform in the Canadian system. Back in the fall, a group of more than 500 calling themselves Gymnasts for Change Canada sent a letter to St-Onge asking for a third-party judicial review to investigate "toxic culture and rampant child abuse entrenched in Canadian gymnastics." Yesterday, as embattled Gymnastics Canada CEO Ian Moss was being grilled by a parliamentary committee over his handling of misconduct allegations against a former coach, three of Canada's greatest gymnasts — former Olympic champions Kyle Shewfelt and Rosie MacLennan and three-time world championships medallist Ellie Black — wrote a letter to Gymnastics Canada asking for Moss and board chair Jeffery Thomson to step down.
For more on the issue of abuse in Canadian sports, read the new Shattered Trust stories on how millions in safe-sport funding isn't going where it's really needed and why Canada's sport organizations say they don't have the tools to stop abuse. Listen to safe-sport advocate Allison Forsyth share her ideas on how to rid sports of abuse on the latest episode of the Player's Own Voice podcast.