Canada’s former sport minister is calling for “real leaders to step up” over fears the country may repeat history if the federal government doesn’t launch a national inquiry into sports culture.
Kirsty Duncan, a Liberal MP who served as Minister of Science and Sport from 2015 to 2019, said more work needs to be done to make sports safer for children across the country.
“My fear is if we don’t have an inquiry, we’re going to be having these same conversations in five years, 10 years. These are children, they get one childhood,” she told The Canadian Press on Monday.
Duncan said an inquiry would need to be broad and far-reaching, allowing athletes a safe place to give testimony about alleged abuse or misconduct.
“This is the time for people to come to the table and put athletes and young children first,” she said. “Real leaders step up.”
Duncan’s comments come as four former and current Canadian athletes reiterated calls for a national inquiry into sports culture in Canada at a parliamentary committee meeting on Monday.
Soccer players Ciara McCormack and Andrea Neil, along with Olympic boxer Myriam Da Silva Rondeau and fencer Emily Mason echoed each other in pushing for an inquiry into the handling of abuse and mismanagement at their respective sporting organizations and across the country.
The women spoke to the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage about the institutional roadblocks they faced when reporting misconduct and the need for better protection for athletes who raise concerns, including legislation protecting athletes who speak out.
McCormack, who wrote about the abuses committed by former Vancouver Whitecaps and Canadian women’s soccer head coach Bob Birarda, said she’s worried about her safety given her past comments about abuse in Canada Soccer. Birarda was sentenced to nearly 16 months in jail in 2022 for sex offences that “immeasurably harmed” four female teenage athletes.
“Is the Minister of Sport watching? Is the Prime Minister watching? Is whoever making these decisions, are they watching? It’s very much impacted our lives far past our sporting careers and it’s just so disappointing. I just feel ashamed, honestly, to be a Canadian that this is the reality of what it means and the response to being a Canadian athlete and this is the response to so many of us coming forward for so many months now,” she said.
Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge told reporters that she is committed to a response but added that she wants to determine how such an investigation would be organized.
“My goal is to have an environment that sport participants can testify and share their experiences and their recommendations,” the minister told reporters.
But athletes said urgent action is needed.
“With every passing day, there are more children who are placed into these environments. More children who are experiencing the same things that we have and continue to every single day that a national inquiry is not called and we’re not taking action. That is not acceptable,” said Mason, who is now part of Fencing for Change Canada, a group that represents current and past Olympic and national fencers.
Rondeau has won both a gold and silver medal at the Pan-American games and placed ninth at the 2020 Olympic Games but said due to mental trauma, she cannot remember those achievements.
Rondeau told a parliamentary committee in 2022that she is facing a lawsuit from the director of high performance at the Canadian Boxing Federation for comments she posted on social media about alleged misconduct.
“We need help and we need people to stop people inside the federation using our complaints against us (in the judicial system),” Rondeau said through tears.
Rachael Denhollander, an attorney and former gymnast who was a whistleblower against Larry Nassar with USA Gymnastics, also spoke about the need to address systemic abuse at a federation level and ensure that there are checks and balances in place to ensure that if a coach is sanctioned in a country, like the U.S., that they are not allowed to coach in a similar capacity in Canada.
Nassar, a former Michigan State University sports doctor, was sentenced in 2018 to 40 to 175 years in prison after admitting to molesting top U.S. gymnasts for years under the guise of medical treatment.
Duncan said she will continue to push for a national inquiry to help children and athletes.
“If you can’t expose the rot, how can you make things better?” she said. “I will not be complicit.”
—Nick Wells, The Canadian Press