Witnesses call for national judicial inquiry into safety of girls and women in sport

Kim Shore fought back tears as she described the accounts of abuse in Canadian gymnastics.

"How many of you experienced a trusted coach pressing your legs into over-splits while you sobbed and begged them to stop but they just screamed at you to 'shut-up?'" Shore asked.

"Who here spent the prime of their life with their face stuck in a toilet bowl throwing up every meal? Who obsessively weighed themselves or were force-fed in hospital to treat an eating disorder?"

Shore, a co-founder of Gymnasts for Change, was among the first to testify before members of Parliament on an emotional opening day of the Standing Committee on the Status of Women's hearings on the safety of women and girls in sport.

The resounding message from Monday's testimony is that sport can't be left to govern itself. A federal inquiry is needed.

"Progress is undoubtedly happening. But it is taking too long, and it is inconsistently realized across the sports system," said Allison Sandmeyer-Graves, the CEO of Canadian Women and Sport. "Echoing the other witnesses … (there must be) a national judicial inquiry by the Government of Canada into maltreatment at all levels of sport to gain a full systemic view of the challenges and to design appropriate solutions."

The study comes after months of imploring the federal government for an independent investigation from hundreds of athletes — more than 500 in gymnastics alone — across several Canadian sports.

Rob Koehler, the Montreal-based director general of Global Athlete, said he's heard complaints of maltreatment from more than a dozen sports, listing off gymnastics, soccer, bobsled, skeleton, track and field, cross-country skiing, water polo, swimming, artistic swimming, boxing, canoe/kayak, rowing and figure skating.

"The fact athletes have turned to Global Athlete (an athlete advocacy group) and not the current system should speak volumes. Athletes fear and do not trust the system," Koehler said. "Abuse is a human rights issue, not a sport one. Abusers recognize the power imbalance that leaves athletes powerless and coaches and administrators the almighty powerful."

He paused to gather his emotions before adding: "Athletes have shared with me their lived experiences that have ripped my heart apart."

In gymnastics, many of those lived experiences involve minors, Shore pointed out.

"How many of you have experienced confusion, nausea, and panic when a trusted adult suddenly said, 'I want to touch you?' Or had to choose between the 'safe haven' of your sexually abusive male coach just to be spared from the outright cruelty of your female coach?" Shore asked in her testimony. "Have any of you lived in chronic pain since adolescence or self-harmed because the voice in your head said, and maybe still does, 'You're worthless, useless, lazy.'"

Amelia Cline, a lawyer and co-founder of Gymnasts for Change, said developing a nation-wide child abuse registry for coaches would be one positive step.

"(And) what the survivors have not seen to date is any sort of accountability for the current leadership at (Gymnastics Canada) that have been implicated recently in essentially covering up abuse," she added. "We're hoping that this committee can use its power to hold those individuals to account as well."

The first day of testimony comes a week after the continuance of Hockey Canada's examination by members of Parliament. That national sports body has been mired in controversy for months after the organization mishandled sexual assault allegations involving members of the 2018 world junior team.

Concordia University's Teresa Fowler and Shannon Moore detailed their 2021 study on hockey culture in their testimony Monday. One elite-level player interviewed said his coach went around the dressing room after a loss telling each player he was terrible.

"He said he was going to go and hang himself in his shower and it would be our fault, at 12 years old," Fowler recounted.

"The participants told stories of women and girls being used for props and for points at team events. One participant shared they had a coach do body shots off a 15-year-old girl at a rookie party. To these players, these were just hockey stories shared casually throughout the interviews."

An investigation into the 2018 sexual assault allegations involving Canadian junior men's players has been opened by London, Ont., police and Halifax police are investigating group sexual assault allegations involving members of the 2003 men's junior team. None of the allegations have been proven in court.

Sandmeyer-Graves said that despite progress, research and experience confirms that "sport remains a male-dominated space in which patriarchy, misogyny and hegemonic masculinity are institutionalized, and expressed culturally at every level of sport.

"We need a sports system that is values-based, a sports system that prioritizes the dignity, the rights and the well-being of participants above all else, reflected in how sport is designed, measured and funded."

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

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press