Gymnastics Canada wrongfully gave problem coach 'easy way out', sport minister says

Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge arrives on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022. The minister has called for a culture change. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge arrives on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022. The minister has called for a culture change. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)

After CBC revealed a prominent coach was promoted despite allegations of inappropriate behaviour, then allowed to resign voluntarily after he failed to improve on that behaviour, Canada's sport minister says Gymnastics Canada wrongfully gave the coach "an easy way out."

On Monday, a CBC News investigation detailed how the CEO of Gymnastics Canada, Ian Moss, allegedly knew of concerns about well-known and well-respected coach Alex Bard before he named him to run the country's women's artistic gymnastics program.

Bard has coached gymnastics in Canada for four decades, but several people say he was also known for alleged inappropriate actions.

Three former staff members and coaches with Gymnastics Canada confirmed there were formal and informal complaints made about Bard over several years, long before his rise to the top of the ranks.

The allegations, which have not been proven and have never led to charges, included behaving abusively toward female coaches and athletes, and kissing, touching and stoking fear in young gymnasts.

Gymnastics Canada is one of the country's largest national sport organizations, with more than 310,000 registered athletes. It is the primary pipeline for developing Canadian gymnasts with aspirations to compete on the world stage, including the Olympics.

In a statement to CBC, federal sport minister Pascale St-Onge said "toxic coaching practices and cultures of silence are deeply entrenched" within national sport organizations, and those organizations need to change.

"Coaches who are accused of such behaviours should be investigated and not be given an easy way out," the minister's statement reads.

"We all — parents, coaches, officials, administrators, and volunteers — must have zero tolerance for abuse and maltreatment of athletes, and I hope that message is clear to everyone."


Leaders must respond quickly to allegations of abuse, minister says

St-Onge said the onus is on anyone in a position of power within a national sport organization, such as Gymnastics Canada.

"People in leadership positions need to act as soon as they become aware of abuse or maltreatment of any kind within their organization, act responsibly, and be accountable for change," the statement read.

"This is a requirement for good governance and management."

One of Bard's supervisors at Gymnastics Canada, Karl Balisch, acknowledged to CBC about concerns expressed to him regarding Bard's behaviour.

Balisch would leave the organization in 2018 and currently works as the executive director of Archery Canada.

Still, Bard was promoted the same year Balisch left, and just months after Moss — who was the organization's high performance director at the time — also acknowledged concerns about Bard's behaviour, according to a source.

Bard was then pushed out in 2019 due to failing to improve on his behaviour, according to a letter from Moss to the Gymnastics Canada board of directors.

St-Onge's office called many of the allegations against Bard "outdated coaching methods."

Bluewater Gymnastics Club Inc./Facebook
Bluewater Gymnastics Club Inc./Facebook

Bard allowed to resign

As first reported by TSN, Bard was given the choice to resign or face an internal investigation. He told TSN he had "nothing to prove" and walked away, but he continues to coach young gymnasts across Canada.

Moss told CBC he did the best he could with the information available when he received the various concerns.

"There were a number of informal concerns that were put forward that we dealt with in terms of behaviour, and then there was one formal complaint that came around inappropriate behaviour in one incident that [had] nothing to do with abuse or maltreatment," Moss said.

"I dealt with it accordingly, and I stand by that."

The Gymnastics Canada board of directors has also been overhauled since Bard left, according to current board chair Jeff Thomson.

Amid the calls for an independent third-party investigation, Gymnastics Canada hired McLaren Global Sport Solutions this summer to help design a culture review for the organization and analyze its national safe sport policies and procedures. McLaren is set to release a public report in January 2023.

The organization also recently signed on to access the services of the new Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner (OSIC), which was created to provide a one-stop, fully independent complaint investigator. It will be an official member no later than Dec. 2.

St-Onge's office has suspended funding to Gymnastics Canada, pending confirmation the organization has joined OSIC.