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Integrity commissioner needs sporting body buy-in to investigate abuse complaints

Two dozen complaints about abuse and mistreatment have been filed with Canada’s new sport integrity commissioner, but she cannot investigate most of them because so few national sporting bodies have agreed to work with her office.
Canada’s sport integrity commissioner Sarah-Ève Pelletier is seen in this handout image received May 18, 2022. Two dozen complaints about abuse and mistreatment in sport were filed with Canada’s new sport integrity commissioner between June and September. (Photo by The Canadian Press)

Two dozen complaints about abuse and mistreatment have been filed with Canada’s new sport integrity commissioner, but she cannot investigate most of them because so few national sporting bodies have agreed to work with her office.

Sarah-Ève Pelletier is hoping that will soon start to change.

Pelletier was appointed the country’s first sport integrity commissioner in April as the federal government moved to address what Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge has called a “crisis.”

Athletes have filed 24 complaints between June 20, when the office first began accepting them, and September.

But 16 of those are in limbo because only two national sporting bodies — weightlifting and volleyball — and three other organizations have signed up to use the service.

St-Onge has given all sports until April to sign on to the integrity commissioner’s system or risk losing their federal funding.

Pelletier said she is encouraged by the efforts she is seeing from sporting organizations to join the new process and said some may be hampered by the need to change internal policies or gather appropriate consent from all involved.

“By the end of the year, there is going to be a greater number of organizations on board,” she said.

In the meantime, she said the complaints that can’t move forward are not being closed.

“One thing that we’ll do is definitely make sure that if we’re not able to admit a complaint as of now, we do leave it open,” she said.

And she said the office will do its best to prevent the complainants from having to resubmit their information, “to avoid the trauma of having to recount your story twice.”

She also said she expects the number of complaints to jump quickly as more sporting bodies join.

Hundreds of athletes have come forward this year alone to publicly report issues of physical, sexual and psychological abuse from coaches, trainers and others in authority across multiple sports.

The Hockey Canada debacle in recent months brought a new level of pressure to fix what ails the sports system. But an attempt to repair it was already underway before news broke in May that Hockey Canada had settled a civil lawsuit with a woman who alleged she was sexually assaulted by members of the 2018 national junior hockey team.

Creating the sport integrity commissioner’s office to be a one-stop, fully independent complaint investigator is among the biggest changes.

Before that, most organizations had their own in-house process for investigating complaints, a process many athletes said left them vulnerable to retaliation or further abuse.

Pelletier is also mandated to conduct broader assessments of entire organizations or specific teams to look for systemic problems and recommend changes. She said an initial review to determine which ones will proceed first is done and now she is working to determine next steps.

The office has no power to force organizations to follow its recommendations, but after hearing from athletes, Pelletier created a plan to report on the progress of implementation after one year.

“So that will make sure that we help keep the heat on,” she said.

There are calls for a wider investigation beyond what Pelletier can do. The House of Commons heritage committee, which convened in June to investigate the issues with Hockey Canada, is likely to expand its probe to look at other sports.

But the committee was focused on other things at its last meeting on Tuesday, and if there was a discussion about expanding the sports probe, it was held in secret.

Liberal MP Kirsty Duncan, who was the minister of sport in 2018 and 2019, said doing dozens of separate assessments for every sport will be time-consuming and labour intensive.

She is pushing for a full public inquiry that would probe the problem of abuse across all sport, much like the Dubin Inquiry that investigated doping in Canadian sport in 1989.

“We’ve heard these stories in the media for decades,” she said. “How many athletes does it take to come forward before we have an inquiry?”

Pelletier would not say if she thinks a public inquiry is warranted. She said one big difference between what she can do in a sport assessment and what an inquiry can do is that the latter could likely subpoena witnesses so they are compelled to co-operate.

“We can very much incentivize and encourage that participation,” she said. “But there would be, as the process stands today, some limitation in terms of our ability to really compel participation and we understand that a public inquiry may have those attributes.”

St-Onge previously expressed a preference for any deeper look at systemic issues of abuse in sport to be kept within Pelletier’s office.

Adam van Koeverden, a Liberal MP and Olympic gold medal-winning kayaker, said he’s not certain if a public inquiry is warranted.

“I would welcome any further and deeper conversation on it,” he said. “Personally, honestly, I’d have to look into exactly what a public inquiry would entail.”

But van Koeverden said there has already been a lot of progress in the last several years to make sport safe.

“I wouldn’t want to derail the progress at all,” he said.