Gymnasts repeat calls to sport minister for investigation into toxic culture of abuse

TORONTO — Seven months after they first appealed to the federal government for an independent investigation into their sport, more than 500 current and former gymnasts are repeating their call to action.

Gymnasts For Change Canada, a group that has grown from an original membership of 70, wrote an open letter on Wednesday to sport minister Pascale St-Onge imploring her to take action.

"You have the power to initiate the judicial investigation gymnasts are seeking," the letter said. "Every day without that action from the Canadian government is another day children suffer the most despicable forms of emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Every day without that action is another day that the brave survivors of this sport must find even more strength against a system that has failed to protect them as children, now invalidates their experiences, and threatens to leave the next generation at risk of horrific abuse."

Gymnastics Canada announced last week it had signed an agreement to join Abuse-Free Sport, and work with the new Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner (OSIC), which was created as a one-stop, independent complaint investigator. St-Onge froze Gymnastics Canada's funding in July, telling the federation it needed to accelerate the process to sign onto OSIC.

The minister said in a statement to The Canadian Press that her staff and senior Sport Canada officials have been in conversation with the gymnasts for the past six months.

"The experiences of survivors have driven the work I am doing to reform the sport system," St-Onge said. "We continue to work on a way forward for an independent investigation, and we have a tool we can use immediately, which is (OSIC). That office can review, right now, what has happened and is happening in specific sports."

GymCan also hired McLaren Global Sport Solutions (MGSS) in June to analyze GymCan's national safe sport policies and procedures.

But Gymnasts For Change say neither OSIC nor the McLaren review are truly independent. They've informed the commissioner Sarah-Eve Pelletier they won't pursue an investigation through OSIC, citing its limited resources, lack of independence, lack of subpoena powers, inability to enforce sanctions, and inability to compel participation or submission of documents.

"It is also a new entity, one that we must get right," St-Onge said. "We are listening to athletes and to the sport community and are working on making sure OSIC has the powers to respond to the needs and privacy of survivors. I believe the gymnasts that have had the courage to come forward, and the approach we take must be trauma-informed."

This past summer, gymnastics coach Jamie Ellacott was charged with sexually assaulting four girls, ranging in age from seven to 14, in Lethbridge, Alta.

Abby Spadafora — who detailed in a public letter in May her own allegations of years of sexual, emotional and physical abuse in the 1990s — wonders if a federal investigation could have stopped the Lethbridge assaults before they allegedly happened.

"It's been really hard to swallow. I didn't sleep for days after (the allegations) came out, because we had already been saying to the sport minister gymnastics needs a true independent investigation that meets judicial standards," Spadafora said. "And I still to this day wonder could that have been prevented if an investigation had been started?"

Gymnasts for Change wrote an open letter to the sport minister on June 22 that detailed numerous examples of abuse including child rape by coaches, sexualized touching during stretching, sexual grooming in the guise of coaching, including gymnasts being required to kiss their coaches on the lips as a show of "respect," regular weighing and shaming of children as young as eight plus the provision of diet pills and laxatives, public berating of children as "fat, stupid and ugly," and forcing children to train on significant injuries including broken bones and muscle tears.

"Any of these examples should warrant the most urgent action from the Canadian government," the letter said. "We are deeply disappointed that these examples did not spur action. As we have informed your office, these examples are not historical, and abuse continues in gyms all across this country today."

Liberal MP and former sport minister Kirsty Duncan is pushing for a public inquiry that would probe the problem of abuse across all sport, much like the Dubin Inquiry that investigated doping in Canadian sport in 1989.

"Over 500 gymnasts are asking for an investigation of the sport's toxic culture of abuse," Duncan tweeted Wednesday. "How many decades, how many stories, how many athletes does it take to come forward before we have an independent inquiry across sport?"

Kim Shore, a former member of GymCan's board of directors, said there is precedence. Several countries including Australia and Great Britain have done independent investigations. Australia's was completed by the Australian Human Rights Commission, while Great Britain's Whyte Review was co-commissioned by U.K. Sport and Sport England.

"It's so unbelievable that in a wonderful country like Canada, that there are so many capable entities stuck in apathy when it comes to child abuse," Shore said. "Nine other countries have completed independent investigations, many at their government's behest, so what is wrong? What more do we have to do as survivors to get action and to protect children?"

The gymnasts said in Wednesday's letter they'll continue pushing for change, and using their voices "to bring truth to power.

"However, we know that without your action and your leadership, our voices can only call out abuse — they cannot stop it. This is an important moment in Canadian history and one that will define your legacy as sport minister … it's time to act to protect every gymnast in Canada."

— Follow @Ewingsports on Twitter.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 26, 2022.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press