Elite athletes appeared before a House of Commons committee Monday to accuse the federal government of doing nothing in response to abuse in sports and to demand a national public inquiry.
The athletes — who included Olympic boxer Myriam Da Silva Rondeau, soccer players Ciara McCormack and Andrea Neil, and fencer Emily Mason — told MPs about the physical and mental abuse they endured at the hands of coaches and others officials.
They said that abuse is rampant in multiple sports and they’re calling for a fundamental re-think of how elite sports are governed in Canada.
The athletes said existing protections are inadequate and whistleblowers are often scared to come forward because they fear retribution from their abusers, many of whom still work in sport despite past allegations of wrongdoing.
McCormack told MPs she was forced to leave Canada for Ireland to escape abuse at the hands of Bob Birarda, a former Vancouver Whitecaps and national coach who recently was convicted of sex offences.
McCormack said she and others reported Birarda’s abuse to Canada Soccer, the sport’s governing body, but the organization protected this “known predator” for years.
She claimed Canada Soccer is riddled with “rampant conflicts of interest … zero oversight” and financial mismanagement.
She said that such allegations should be probed “through a national inquiry.”
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“It’s shocking that there’s nothing being done,” McCormack said of the federal government.
“How many times do we have to keep telling you all how this has massively impacted our lives in a really substantial manner? I don’t understand, on a human level, how you can literally witness this car accident over and over again and do nothing. It’s very disappointing.”
McCormack wondered aloud how seriously Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge and her government are taking the problem.
“Is she even watching? Is the prime minister watching? Are they watching?” she asked MPs. “It’s so disappointing. I feel ashamed to be a Canadian.”
St-Onge told reporters the government will do something to address athlete concerns but hasn’t decided yet whether there should be a public inquiry or some sort of “investigation.” Either way, the minister said, the process will be “trauma-informed.”
Andrea Neil, a former Canadian women’s national soccer team player and assistant coach, also reported Monday a poor experience with Canada Soccer.
She said it’s an “old boy’s club” that’s more interested in “denying and deflecting” stories of abuse than in meaningfully addressing wrongdoing throughout the sport.
Despite claims that they’re willing to change, Neil said, “there’s a big gap in what they’re saying and what they’re doing. It’s a massive problem.”
‘Toxicity, bullying and abuse’
Emily Mason, is a former fencer who is now part of Fencing for Change Canada, a group that represents current and past Olympic and national fencers. She said her sport has a culture of “toxicity, bullying and abuse.”
She told MPs of one coach who allegedly hosted female athletes at his home for a training camp only to bring out sex toys for a live demonstration.
Mason said the sanctions imposed on this coach were inadequate — an apology letter and a four-month competition ban at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
After experiencing abuse, Mason said she left the sport at age 17 grappling with a “mental health crisis,” which led to a suicide attempt.
“Our athletes are hurting, my friends are hurting and it’s time for a change,” Mason said. “A public inquiry into Canadian sport culture is so imperative.”
Mason said, for too long, sports organizations like Canadian Fencing Federation have “prioritized medals over the lives of athletes.”
She said the federation hasn’t cut ties with abusive coaches because they deliver results.
Myriam Da Silva Rondeau, an Olympic boxer and Pan American Games silver medallist, was one of 121 boxers who wrote an open letter to Sport Canada last year calling for the resignation of high-performance director Daniel Trépanier. He resigned four days later.
Da Sila Rondeau told MPs that she’s now being sued by someone she accused of creating a toxic sporting environment.
She said the legal costs, combined with the costs of intensive therapy to help address mental health issues, have stretched her financially. She said athletes need more support when they come forward to report mistreatment. As it stands, victims are left to twist in the wind, she said.