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Pelletier: Solving safe-sport crisis requires buy-in from all levels

Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge rises during Question Period, Tuesday, January 31, 2023 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

TORONTO — Sports are rife with stories of coaches facing allegations of maltreatment from a club or provincial organization, who, under the cover of jurisdictional borders, move to another club, province or even another sport, and no-one is the wiser.

Abusive behaviour can go also unchecked at the grassroots level without universal rules around conduct, reporting and suspensions. 

Six months after Canada's new Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner began hearing cases, Sarah-Eve Pelletier said those are a couple of black holes in the fight to end abuse in Canadian sport.

"Our country is in dire need of harmonized rules around maltreatment in sport and how to address it," Pelletier said Monday. "The Universal Code of Conduct to Prevent and Address Maltreatment in Sport, the UCCMS, provides a strong foundation at the national level, but the current inconsistency of rules and their application at different levels of sports participation remains an important gap to be addressed."

Pelletier, Canada's first sport integrity commissioner and a former artistic swimmer, was testifying at Monday's session of Standing Committee on the Status of Women's meetings on the safety of women and girls in sport.

Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge said Tuesday she plans to push her provincial counterparts to hasten their efforts to investigate abuse in sports when she meets them Feb. 17-18 at the Canada Winter Games in Charlottetown. 

"This needs to happen as quickly as possible. I think we're facing an urgent matter," St-Onge said. "We're hearing these stories of abuse and maltreatment at all levels. It shouldn't be a jurisdictional issue. All athletes should know where to turn to when they're facing these situations.''

Pelletier said provincial buy-in will fill some of the chasm. 

"It's really about making sure that all participants at all levels, that there are consistent rules, consistent standards of behaviour, and then consistent ways to address those," Pelletier said in an interview with The Canadian Press on Wednesday.

"Our services at the OSIC services would be available for those provincial or territorial organizations that wish to use them. But it's not the point. The point is to make sure that there is a system that leaves no gap. No gaps from the victims. No gaps for the survivors. And also no gaps for those who are looking for gaps in the system and ways cause harm.

"My favourite word is 'harmonized system,' because it doesn't have to be necessarily just one solution, OSIC is hoping to be really part of the solution."

Quebec is the only province to have a provincial-reporting mechanism, Sport'Aide, formed in 2014 to address the growing issue of violence in sport there.

Pelletier said OSIC received 48 complaints up to Dec. 31, but jurisdictional issues meant they admitted just 25 per cent in the first quarter. That number grew to 33 per cent in the second quarter, and Pelletier expects the percentage to climb as sport organizations become signatories. St-Onge has set a deadline of April to sign on before sport organizations risk losing federal funding.

"Time is of the essence and the earlier that sport organizations join the program at the national level, the more our ability will be to address cases that relate to participants under that jurisdiction," she said. 

"In terms of our powers, we can impose sanctions against individuals who have permitted violations. We have the power to compel participation by those who have signed on to our processes. And we also have the mandate to maintain a registry of (individuals who've received) sanctions."

Pelletier said the entry point for athletes making a report is often through OSIC's helpline. From there, she said, athletes are given legal aid and mental health referrals throughout the process. 

She added that when a complaint is inadmissible due to jurisdictional boundaries, OSIC tries to find an alternative path for complaint.

"In less than a third of those cases, we're able to find an alternative mechanism," she said. 

That's why Pelletier says she's "very passionate" about making true change in the Canadian sport culture.

"It cannot just happen at the national level. We really need prevention, education, starting from the young parents, starting from the young children, knowing their rights and their responsibilities and that needs to be concrete and real at the club level, at the provincial level," Pelletier said. 

"It is something that can be solved collectively, if all levels of the system work jointly together."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 1, 2023.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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