Abusive coaches continue to slip through policing measures in Canadian gymnastics

·6 min read

TORONTO — Chad Meikle bounced around between five different Toronto-area gymnastics clubs over his decade as a coach.

According to court documents, he was also a diagnosed pedophile, and maintained a blog in which he called himself "Pedo-Coach." Meikle blogged about his sexual attraction to young girls, and offered advice to other pedophiles.

Yet, he managed to seemingly raise no alarm bells within the gymnastics community until his arrest in 2006, when he counselled an undercover Toronto police officer on how to sexually abuse his (fictitious) eight-year-old daughter, in an online conversation that lasted nearly two hours. When police searched the 33-year-old's house, they found young girls underwear allegedly taken from a gymnastics club, plus dozens of child pornography videos and photos.

More than a decade later, hundreds of gymnasts have been calling on the federal government for an investigation into their sport, as abusive coaches continue to slip through the cracks.

"We have a problem in gymnastics, whereby emotional, verbal, psychological abuse leaves kids vulnerable to other forms of abuse and toxic relationships," said Kim Shore, a former gymnast, the mother of a former gymnast, and a former Gymnastics Canada board member.

"(And here was) a coach actively educating would-be criminals on how to be predators on kids who are already vulnerable because of the toxic culture of gymnastics. That's terrifying."

Shore is among the more than 500 former and current gymnasts — they call themselves Gymnasts for Change — who've been passionately lobbying the federal government to help clean up their sport.

Meanwhile, the allegations of abuse continue. Since Jamie Ellacott, a 33-year-old gymnastics coach in Lethbridge, was charged in July with sexually assaulting a seven-year-old girl at his gym, three more girls aged 10, 12 and 14 have since come forward. Investigators say the girls were assaulted in May. None of the allegations have been proven in court. The Lethbridge Gymnastics Academy has permanently closed.

"It's so upsetting," said retired gymnast Abby Spadafora. "We know there is an endemic of child abuse in Canadian gymnastics right now. Why is it not being taken more seriously? Why are we not immediately doing an investigation? I get a little bit passionate about it because it's infuriating and upsetting."

Spadafora detailed in a public letter in May her own allegations of years of sexual, emotional and physical abuse in the 1990s by coaches Dave and Elizabeth Brubaker. Dave Brubaker was suspended from Gymnastics Canada (GymCan) for life, while Elizabeth is serving a five-year suspension. Dave Brubaker was found not guilty in court and the couple has denied all allegations.

GymCan and provincial organizations require coaches to undergo a police check. Suspended coaches are listed on GymCan's website, although Meikle isn't among the 27 names. Many provincial organizations also post lists of suspended coaches online.

"(But) once the suspension is done, it goes off the list," Spadafora pointed out. "Somebody could be suspended for two years, and if they've already done their time, they're no longer on the list. Why were they suspended? What caused a two-year suspension?"

Spadafora couldn't bring herself to read the Meikle court documents.

"Two lines. I couldn't do it. It was horrible," said the 38-year-old.

She said she knows of proven abuse or allegations of abuse involving close to two dozen Canadian coaches since the days she competed. One was Claude Aubertin, a board member for Gymnastics Canada, Gymnastique Quebec, and the 2017 World Championships in Montreal. Aubertin was charged in 2016 with possessing, distributing and consuming child pornography. He'd served a sentence on child prostitution charges in 1992.

While GymCan said at the time it had been unaware of Aubertin's previous charges, experts say police checks aren't always effective anyways.

"When we talk about a lot of the things that are happening in sport, they probably wouldn't reach the criminal threshold," said Erin Willson, president of AthletesCAN, which represents Canadian athletes, and an Olympian in artistic swimming. "(A police check) would miss a lot of some of the bigger issues that are happening in sport."

Discredited coaches often migrate from one club, city, province or even country to another. Some switch to other sports.

"We've seen what happened in the United States (the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal)," said Conservative MP Karen Vecchio. "We have to ensure that each and every individual is there for the right reasons, is there to protect our children and to make great athletes but at the same time making good people, and not destroying lives."

Vecchio, the Shadow Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Youth and the Chair of the Standing Committee on the Status of Women, recently met with Shore and other gymnasts.

"It's happening to our most vulnerable youth, and that’s what I'm really, really concerned about," Vecchio said. "And no three-strikes-you're-out. One strike you're gone. We need to have policies where we're not granting (sexual abusers) second opportunities when they have violated a person, especially a child."

The U.S. Center for Safe Sport USA has a disciplinary database that lists every coach who's broken its code of conduct. Other countries, Willson said, have repositories that, while not public, can provide background information on coaches ahead of potential hirings.

"I think something is needed, the amount of times that a coach is let go at a certain place, pops up in another place is far too common," Willson said.

Canada's first Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner (OSIC) was launched in June to perform independent investigations of claims of abuse and maltreatment in sport. But OSIC can't handle complaints from sports who've yet to sign agreements to work with the new safe-sport office. While Canada's Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge has set a deadline of April of 2023 for national sport organizations to sign on, weightlifting and volleyball are the only two who have thus far. Dozens more are in negotiations.

St-Onge announced in July she was freezing GymCan's federal funding until the federation signed on with OSIC.

Willson said one of the biggest drawbacks to the recent news around abuse in Hockey Canada, gymnastics, and other sports is the potential "hesitation for parents put their kids in sport. The reason that we have these conversations is because we want sport to be better."

Her advice to parents: ask questions.

"You should have the right to ask coaches: what is their coaching philosophy? What is their coaching style? Are they a coach who cares about human development? What's your coaching philosophy? Is it to coach the person as a whole? Is it to empower them as humans in and out of their sport?

"I think those are good signs, for when you're talking to a coach, to see if their values align with who you are and what you want your athlete to accomplish."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 7, 2022.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press