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National sport organizations face safe-sport deadline, risk losing funding

A flurry of national sport organizations signing up with the new Office of the Sports Integrity Commissioner is expected in the coming days, or their funding could get cut off. Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge rises during Question Period in Ottawa, Monday, March 20, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

A flurry of national sport organizations signing up with the new Office of the Sports Integrity Commissioner is expected in the coming days, or their funding could get cut off.

The office with lawyer and former artistic swimmer Sarah-Ève Pelletier at its helm was established as one remedy to Canada's safe-sport crisis.

Athletes have been testifying before parliamentary committees in recent months about the sexual, emotional and physical abuse they've experienced pursuing their sport at the highest level. 

Most national sport bodies have an in-house process for complaints, which athletes said left them at risk for retaliation and more abuse.

The Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner (OSIC), which is an independent division of the Sport Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada, was established to take the complaint process away from the NSOs. 

Canadian sports minister Pascale St-Onge made Saturday the cutoff for any national sports organization that gets federal money to become a signatory and comply with the Universal Code of Conduct to Prevent and Address Maltreatment in Sport (UCCMS).

"We expect all national sport organizations to become signatories of the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner by April 1, 2023," St. Onge told The Canadian Press in a statement Thursday.

"I am very proud of the great progress that has been made in just a few months. Almost all NSO are now members of OSIC, and this is a significant step toward a safer sport system in Canada.

"The very few NSO that haven't complied by April 1 will have their funding suspended until they do so."

Of the 63 national sport organizations that receive Sport Canada money, 41 were listed as signatories as of Thursday with another 15 committed to complying soon.

"We need action from sport organizations," Pelletier told The Canadian Press.

"We need action from everyone in the Canadian sports system and we need that action to be diligent, but as efficient as possible, to really affect the change that's needed and the advancement of safe and inclusive sport for everyone."

Among the signatories are Hockey Canada and Gymnastics Canada, which have been headliners for safe sport problems.

Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton, which underwent a leadership purge last year, pushed back its original Jan. 17 date of compliance because it wanted more time for a leadership transition.

"We're not going to speak about individual NSOs and where we are in negotiations with them," said Marie-Claude Asselin, who is the chief executive officer for the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada. 

"We can tell you that we're in communication with all of them. Sometimes there's a delay between the signature and the actual implementation because they need time to finalize some of the obligations under the agreement. 

"We give them a grace period of a maximum three months. They're in the process of having the documents signed but the effective date could be past April 1. We do have a number of agreements that are already signed to become effective on Friday and Saturday."

The Canadian Olympic and Paralympic committees, the Canada Games Council, the Coaching Association of Canada and all seven national sport institutes are also among signatories.

Once signed with OSIC, the sport and the people in it are bound by UCCMS, which covers grooming, neglect, physical, sexual and psychological abuse, as well as retaliation, failure to report maltreatment, false allegations and misuse of power.

Illegal sports betting, conflict of interest, team selection or athlete assistance program (carding) don't fall under OSIC's umbrella.

The federal government's 2022 budget, St-Onge's first as sport minister, provided $16 million to fund OSIC over its first three years of operations.

OSIC began hearing complaints and reports June 20, 2022, but quickly ran up against jurisdictional issues because complaints came from sports that were not yet signatories.

It admitted 25 per cent of complaints and reports in its first quarter and 33 per cent in the second quarter.

Some complaints were rejected because they came from the provincial, territorial or club level, or came from a national sport not yet under OSIC's authority.

OSIC's first quarter of 2023 ends Friday, and Pelletier expects an increase in the total number of complaints received.

A complaint previously inadmissible for jurisdictional issues can be reopened, Pelletier said. 

"It doesn't prevent a matter to be either resubmitted or for a person to request for it to be looked at again," she explained.

"Ideally this is something that we'd try to do without a person having to file a new complaint. From an OSIC perspective, the objective is to avoid people who have experienced harm to have to file reports and things like that many times because that can be cause for trauma."

The Canadian taxpayer is the single biggest funder of high-performance sport to the tune of over $200 million annually. 

St-Onge's funding powers keeps the heat on national sport bodies to sign onto the OSIC, but cracks remain in the system.

Pelletier and St-Onge urge provinces and territories to become signatories, or establish an equivalent reporting mechanism, to bridge the gap.

Volleyball Canada was the only national sports organization as of Thursday to bring its provincial and territorial associations with it to the OSIC, but Sport Nova Scotia has also come on board.

"We will not enter into signatory agreements with individual provincial sport organizations," Asselin said. "We're entering into an agreement with Sport Nova Scotia, which is an umbrella multi-sport organization in that province. 

"The provincial sport organizations will enter into an agreement with Sport Nova Scotia. They will be subject to the UCCMS and the complaint management process of Abuse Free Sport."

Gaps also remain in the areas of university, college and high school sport.

OSIC has its critics too. Some feel it isn't an independent enough from sport.

"I believe we need a complaint mechanism, but it needs to be run outside of sport," former gymnast Kim Shore told a parliamentary committee in Ottawa earlier this week.

The co-founder of Gymnasts For Change Canada spoke about the verbal and physical abuse she experienced as a child athlete, and the continuation of problems and abuse she's witnessed in the sport as an adult.

"OSIC was developed by long-tenured sport academics, sport leaders," Shore said. "They're all sport and it's being funded by Sport Canada, which is problematic right there. Take it outside of sport."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 30, 2023.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

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