Athlete representation, financial transparency among changes to national sports system

Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge announced reforms to Canada's sports system on Thursday. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge announced reforms to Canada's sports system on Thursday. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Federal Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge unveiled a series of reforms on Thursday aimed at enhancing the voice of athletes within Canada's sports system, but critics say the changes fall short of the overhaul many have called for.

"I wish there was one solution that could, over a day, change the culture of sport, but unfortunately it's not the way it works, St-Onge told CBC in an exclusive interview. "We're putting in place the foundation to bring in more accountability, more transparency and also give athletes more representation."

Canada's sports system has come under intense scrutiny in the past 12 months. While some athletes have called for changes around the governance of their national sport organizations (NSOs), most of the discussion has focused on abuse. Athletes from nearly a dozen sports, including gymnastics and soccer, have told stories of mental, sexual and physical abuse along with an overall toxic culture they say puts winning above all else.

St-Onge said the stories she has heard from athletes are "truly shocking" and said some of the changes she is announcing around governance will help make a difference.

WATCH | Safe sport in Canada panel discussion:

To receive federal funding, NSOs will now need to include at least one athlete on their board. Also, 40 per cent of board members must be independent and no staff member of an NSO may sit on the board.

There is also a push to make boards more diverse, including a rule that says no more than 60 per cent of a board can be from the same gender. The new rules must be fully implemented by April 2025.

"If they don't comply, there will be financial section sanctions," St-Onge said, adding she hoped to avoid completely cutting off funding for non-compliance. "We want them to raise the bar but if they don't comply, if there's bad faith from the organization, then we will sanction. And if it takes a complete suspension of their funding, we will."

Some athletes have said giving them more of a say in their careers would go a long way in helping to deal with more serious components of safe sport such as physical, mental and sexual abuse.

"It's something that I think every athlete wants is their voice to be heard," said Alison Levine, a two-time Paralympian in boccia. "This is really something that is going to force those national sport organizations to listen, to open their eyes and know that this is something that they seriously now have to do."

Lori Ward/CBC
Lori Ward/CBC

'Step backward'

Daphne Trahan-Perrault, a national karate champion, said having athletes sitting at the board level will hopefully make them more comfortable to become involved.

"I think we have a lot of great ideas and we should be listened to," she said. "It''s just that sometimes maybe they're scared of the repercussions of speaking up and how they could be perceived."

But athlete advocate Rob Koehler said the proposed changes are a "step backward" and dismissed the notion that the new reforms will strengthen athletes' ability to shape policy and change how their sports are governed, or make them safer.

"When you have one or two seats around the table, you're out-voted all the time. In the U.S. athletes have 30 per cent representation and they're simply not happy because the power imbalance stays," said Koehler, director general of Global Athlete. "The same athletes don't have any control. They don't have an equal say and I think that's the change that needs to happen."

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press
Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Many, including Koehler, had hoped the highlight of Thursday's announcement would be the launch of a public inquiry into widespread abuse at every level of Canadian sport, something that a cross-section of Canadian athletes, academics and politicians have been calling for for months.

"It's disheartening to think how many survivors have come forward, how many advocates come forward talking about an inquiry and demanding inquiry and they haven't been engaged," Koehler said.

St-Onge said a inquiry is in her plans, but she is not ready to discuss details.

"I've already committed to bringing a national inquiry. It's a matter of time," St-Onge said. "I'm still working on it. When I'm ready to announce it, we will. But I've said again and again that it's not a matter of if, it's a matter of how."

The loudest call for inquiry began after the latest instalment of CBC News and Sport's ongoing Shattered Trust investigation into abuse in amateur sports in Canada over the past 25 years. It revealed close to 300 coaches — mostly at the local level — have been convicted of sexual offences against a minor under their care since 1998, across multiple sports, provinces and jurisdictions.

St.-Onge also announced changes around financial transparency after some of the country's largest NSOs, including hockey and soccer, came under scrutiny for their unwillingness to disclose financial information.

NSOs must now post their financial statements and the minutes of board meetings on their website.

Another area St-Onge has been hinting at changing for months is the Own the Podium Program. It's in place to identify and fund athletes who can win medals for Canada. Many have criticized the program and its "win at all cost" message. Many athletes have said it is this notion that has driven and exacerbated abuse at all levels.

St-Onge said a shift is coming in how Canada defines excellence. Changes could be announced as part of the upcoming release of Canada's new sport framework.

"Based on this we are going to work with Own the Podium to see if its mission still fits with those values and what we define as excellence, St-Onge said. "Excellence is not only about medals or performance. It's also about athlete safety and well-being."

CBC News and Sports have been investigating abuse in amateur sport in Canada. Read all of the reporting here.