Athlete abuse testimony needs to be turned into action: lawyer

RICHMOND, B.C. — A national inquiry into safe sport is not necessarily the answer to helping Canadian athletes, according to a former member of the country's taekwondo team and ombudsperson for Canada for the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games.

Dasha Peregoudova, the director of sanctions and outcomes for Abuse-Free Sport, said Saturday that Canada has gone through a national reckoning of abuse in sport, adding work now needs to be done with what the public has heard.

"I have not had, myself, those experiences those athletes had … I don't want to trivialize that," she said of Canadian athletes who have spoken out about abuse and misconduct.

"My reservation about a national inquiry is not that it's not a good use of time or resources, I just have some sense that it would say what we already know which is that there are rampant safe sport issues in sport and that we need to do something about it."

Abuse-Free Sport works with federally funded sport organizations to address alleged violations of the Universal Code of Conduct to Prevent and Address Maltreatment in Sport.

Canada Soccer, Hockey Canada and Gymnastics Canada are among the national sports bodies who have faced questioning from federal politicians and athletes about well-being and concerns about financial management.

"I think through athletes, primarily, and groups like Gymnasts for Change and people who have come forward, we've had the national reckoning version of a national inquiry," Peregoudova said. "Step 2 to all of that is what do we do about all the knowledge we collectively have about these issues that exist?"

Her comments to The Canadian Press came after she, lawyer Amanda Fowler and former athletes Chris de Sousa Costa and Josh Vander Vie participated in a panel discussing governance in Canadian sports held by AthletesCAN.

An issue raised by Fencing for Change Canada at a parliamentary committee on safe sport was that of a coach accused of misconduct at one club leaving it for another where there's no history about their past behaviour.

Fowler, in the panel discussion, said the issue is also replicated at the board level of a national sport organization (NSO).

"People governing in an organization reflect its culture," she said.

"We've seen a couple NSOs, even in the past year, where CEOs have been ousted for pretty serious reasons and then you see them pop up at a different NSO a year later. It's like they keep coming back. It's like the cockroach that never dies."

Fowler, who was a member of South African Olympian Caster Semenya's legal team, said changes can be made in CEO hiring practices.

"It might be tough on the CEO level," she said of creating a list to monitor their movement. "But I still think at that level, you can have a number of mechanisms in place."

Those mechanisms include a vetting process about whether a prospective CEO was ousted and what sort of culture they would bring, Fowler added.

Former sports minister Pascale St-Onge introduced several measures in May aimed at improving athlete safety including a public registry of people who have been sanctioned or suspended within the sport system, restricting the use of non-disclosure agreements, making financial statements public and changing the makeup of boards of directors.

Fowler said she would like to see the long-term results of those measures.

"What would be nice is to see how those mechanisms play out at the national level and see if they're working," she said.

Fowler added the benefit she saw to a national inquiry would be to examine provincial sport bodies more closely for allegations of misconduct.

Peregoudova said she remains hopeful that athletes will continue to speak up and find the resources to support them, such as Abuse-Free Sports.

"I want to see Abuse-Free Sport do what it set out to do," she said. "I'm optimistic and I want to remain that way."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 9, 2023.

Nick Wells, The Canadian Press