Trudeau: Gymnastics Canada needs to reassure parents the sport is safe

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is calling on Gymnastics Canada and other sport organizations to ensure the safety of their athletes, saying there's much work to be done to restore the trust of parents.

Trudeau was responding to questions about the federal government freezing the funding to Gymnastics Canada.

Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge told The Canadian Press on Thursday evening that she was suspending the national sport organization's funding until it signs on with the new Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner. St-Onge froze Hockey Canada's funding recently in the wake of the national organization's handling of an alleged sexual assault and out-of-court settlement.

"I think it's not even about responsibilities to government, because yes, we're demanding that they sign onto the organization for integrity in sports as a condition to full funding," Trudeau said in Stratford, PEI. "They should be worried about satisfying parents across the country that they're keeping their kids safe, that they are an organization promoting the kinds of values, kind of safe environment that every parent has a right to expect for their kids, that we want kids to model."

Trudeau says he's had many conversations with the sport minister's office in recent weeks about several national sport organizations and their failure to fulfil their responsibility to "keep our kids, keep our athletes safe."

"That's why we've made clear requests of Gymnastics Canada and others for more transparency, to sign on to accountability measures, because yes, we need to continue supporting sports, and there's so many great volunteers across the country contributing to young people being able to stay healthy and in sports," he said.

"But we need to make sure we're doing it in a safe way, and we're going to continue making sure that as a government and working with other orders of government, we are pushing for changes that make sure that our kids are kept safe."

St-Onge has made participation in the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner (OSIC) — which began receiving complaints about maltreatment in sport on June 20 — mandatory for federal funding.

Of the 64 national sport organizations, only Volleyball Canada and Weightlifting Canada have signed on so far, although an OSIC spokesperson said "dozens of NSOs are in the negotiation process."

While GymCan is in negotiations with OSIC, St-Onge told The Canadian Press in an interview that she recognizes "that things are not moving fast enough. So I'm putting pressure on Gymnastics Canada, because from what we've heard, they need to sign up as soon as possible."

She also said that Hockey Canada had not started negotiating with OSIC.

Gymnastics Canada said in a statement Friday that the Minister's "public statements reiterate our collective efforts toward ensuring that athletes and participants in Canadian sport are truly served by an independent complaint mechanism and educational body."

Trudeau's comments were met with frustration by many in the gymnastics community.

"It's much more complex than just reassuring parents," said Kim Shore, a former gymnast, the mother of a former gymnast, and a former Gymnastics Canada board member. "The maltreatment and damage to child and youth athletes is both current and historical. The toxic culture is very current. Gymnastics has not been safe for decades so reassuring parents at this point would require saying reassuring things that are just not true."

Calling it a pivotal moment in Canada's sport history, the minister said that allegations of maltreatment, sexual abuse or misuse of funds were levelled against at least eight national sport organizations in her first five months on the job.

"Sport is in a crisis right now with all the stories that we've heard," she said. "It's an important moment.

"I'm putting all the pressure that I can to change the system and change the culture in sport. But all actors have to be participants, at all levels, the provinces, the community, the grassroots organizations, everyone has to put safe sport ahead of everything else right now. It's a collective problem and it needs a collective response."

More than 500 current and former gymnasts have been calling on Sport Canada to conduct an independent investigation into their sport amid numerous claims of physical, psychological and sexual abuse.

"The number of little kids who look up to sporting figures, if they are in challenging situations or organizations that aren't taking proper care of them, that has a cascading effect through society. We know we have to do more and this government is making sure that happens," Trudeau said.

"But I really want to give a shout-out to all those parents across the country who've been speaking up, speaking out, all those athletes who've been bravely standing up, like all those gymnasts who've said 'This has got to stop.' We need to listen. We need to act. And that's exactly what we're doing."

Last week, a gymnastics coach in Lethbridge, Alta., was charged with the sexual assault of a seven-year-old girl, and the group of 508 gymnasts — Gymnasts for Change — are asking if that could have been prevented had their calls for an investigation been heeded.

"I understand the frustration that the athletes feel and I'm horrified by the story," St-Onge said. "That's why I really believe that the athletes, as soon as Gymnastics Canada has signed up with (OSIC), the gymnasts and other athletes who are facing abuse and maltreatment in their sport will be able to turn to that office. It's an independent mechanism. It's exactly what was asked by the different organizations and by the athletes themselves."

NSOs have been required since 2018 to have an individual handle safe-sport complaints, but that led to issues around transparency and independence.

GymCan announced recently it had commissioned McLaren Global Sport Solutions to do a culture review of the sport's national governing body and safe-sport procedures. But the gymnasts decried the review, because it is "bought and paid for by the very organization to be investigated."

GymCan said in its statement that the culture review will take into account historical matters, engagement with survivor groups, policy and procedure reviews, and a holistic and proactive approach for change.

"We agree with 'Gymnasts For Change' that a safe and welcoming environment for all participants in sport is of paramount importance," the federation said, "and that we must continue to be vigilant in eradicating any opportunity for negative, inappropriate or abusive behaviour to occur."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 22, 2022.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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