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St-Onge suspends funding to GymCan until it signs with safe sport office

Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 14, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle

Canada's Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge is freezing Gymnastics Canada's funding until the national federation signs on with the new Office of Sports Integrity Commissioner.

St-Onge said Thursday that she informed GymCan's CEO Ian Moss last week that the federation needed to accelerate their process to sign up, or their funding would be suspended until they completed that requirement.

The minister said it was effective immediately.

The news comes on the heels of more than 500 gymnasts calling on St-Onge to do exactly that. St-Onge froze Hockey Canada's funding in the wake of the national organization's handling of an alleged sexual assault and out-of-court settlement.

"I understand the sense of urgency that motivates these athletes and I share their call for meaningful change," St-Onge said in a statement. "It has been my main focus since I was appointed, to work with the tools I have and move toward solutions that encompass our sport system.

"One of those main solutions is the new Office of Sports Integrity Commissioner (OSIC). It is fully independent and responds to what athletes and organizations have been asking for."

St-Onge has asked all national sport organizations to sign on with OSIC.

Canada's first sport integrity commissioner, Sarah-Eve Pelletier, began receiving and addressing complaints of maltreatment in sport on June 20. It's unclear whether OSIC will hear historical complaints.

Gymnasts for Change, which represents more than athletes, wrote a public letter to St-Onge earlier in the day, requesting the suspension of funds, plus repeating their calls for an independent investigation into their sport amid numerous claims of maltreatment. Most recently, a coach in Lethbridge, Alta., was arrested last week for sexual assaulting a seven-year-old girl.

Their initial request months ago, the gymnasts said, has been ignored by Gymnastics Canada (GymCan), Sport Canada and "now by your office, and to the great detriment of child gymnasts across the country."

Several gymnasts told The Canadian Press earlier this week they wondered if the abuse could have been prevented had their calls for intervention been heard.

"In the last four months, we have publicly bared our souls, sharing stories of devastating treatment we suffered at the hands of our sport," the letter said. "We have called for an independent third-party investigation to address the systemic culture of abuse that prevails in Canadian gymnastics."

GymCan announced recently it had commissioned McLaren Global Sport Solutions to do a "culture review" of the sport's national governing body. But the gymnasts decried the review, because it's "bought and paid for by the very organization to be investigated."

The Gymnasts for Change group, which has grown from an original 70 members three months ago, asked for the suspension of funding to prevent taxpayer dollars going to what they say will be an ineffective and harmful review that will "whitewash the survivor experience."

Thursday's letter noted that GymCan and Sport Canada had been aware of potential for widespread maltreatment claims. Moss told Sport Canada's director general Vicki Walker in August of 2020 — in a communication recently published by TSN — "there could, very soon, be a wave of historic athlete complaints."

In April of 2021 and again in December, GymCan's board of directors was urged by survivors to initiate an independent, third-party investigation into the sport.

The gymnasts posted their first public letter on March 28, urging Sport Canada to move ahead with an investigation.

"According to this timeline, GymCan and Sport Canada have had knowledge of, and the opportunity to act on, suspected systemic abuse in gymnastics for at least two years and have done nothing, allowing abuse to continue against Canadian child athletes without intervention," the letter said. "We had hoped for a better, more urgent response from you."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 21, 2022.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press