By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) – Canada’s Minister for Science and Sport announced on Wednesday the formation of an investigative unit to combat harassment, abuse and discrimination in sport, among other measures.
An investigation by national broadcaster CBC last month found widespread abuse across Canada’s amateur sport system.
The CBC reported that at least 222 coaches involved in amateur sports in Canada have been convicted of sexual offences in the past 20 years involving more than 600 victims under the age of 18.
Canada’s Sport Minister Kirsty Duncan, who called the findings of the CBC report “tragic and completely unacceptable”, followed up by introducing measures to protect athletes, including the threat to withhold funding, and beefed those efforts up by unveiling a third-party investigative unit that will be available to national sport organizations.
The minister also introduced a national toll-free helpline manned by professionals that will be available to both victims and witnesses of abuse, discrimination or harassment.
Both the investigative unit and helpline were operational as of Tuesday, Duncan told Reuters.
“Since Day One this had been my number one priority,” Duncan, a former gymnast, told Reuters. “I have been an athlete, coach, judge all my life and as a coach my number one priority is the health and safety of my athlete. Everything else is second.
“We are all aware of recent reports regarding serious allegations and criminal convictions of sexual abuses in sport in Canada. It breaks my heart.”
Olympic alpine skier Allison Forsyth, who alleges she was a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of her coach, said at the announcement of the programs on Wednesday that she would have given up all her medals not to have gone through the traumatic events.
“It is not about success. Many people will tell you I went on to have a very successful career in skiing,” said Forsyth, the winner of five World Cup giant slalom medals and a bronze at the 2003 world alpine championships.
“I can stand here before you today and tell you I suffered for 20 years in silence because programs like this did not exist, and I would have given back every single medal I ever won to have not had that experience and have had this happen to me.”
Forsyth was one of 12 women to allege they were abused by national ski team coach Bertrand Charest, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison for sex crimes in 2017.
The convictions involved nine of the 12 women but not Forsyth because the alleged incidents occurred outside of Canada and due to legal issues could not be prosecuted.
The Canadian sport scene has been hit by a number of incidents recently involving high-profile athletes including double Olympic gold medal-winning bobsleigher Kaillie Humphries, who filed a harassment complaint with Bobsleigh Canada.
Duncan has warned sports federations that to get funding from the Canadian government they need to act swiftly on complaints while putting mechanisms in place to protect athletes or risk having that funding pulled.
“I’ve made it very clear there can be no bystanders in sport. If you see a child being harmed you have to speak up,” said Duncan. “I have made it very clear I will withhold funding if action is not taken.”
“I have certainly done it on the science and research side. Money talks.”
(Reporting by Steve Keating; Editing by Hugh Lawson)