Harassment in sports: St-Onge asks provinces for investigative systems by end of 2023

OTTAWA — Federal Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge is calling on her provincial and territorial counterparts to establish independent bodies to handle harassment complaints from athletes by the end of this year.

"All governments will work together, to have every athlete and participant in Canada protected by an independent mechanism, targeting to achieve this by the end of 2023," St-Onge told reporters Saturday.

In recent weeks, Ottawa has said that provinces and territories are making progress in offering athletes an equivalent standard for them to report abuse or harassment, as well as having those complaints independently investigated.

St-Onge said that as of Saturday, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have such mechanisms in place, while the rest can either start their own bodies or join the jurisdiction of the federal Sport Integrity Commissioner.

She announced Saturday a target for all provinces and territories to follow through on that pledge by the end of this year.

St-Onge argued that having a targeted timeline amounts to "tremendous progress" in having a uniform approach to the issue, and stressed it takes time to get a credible reporting body up and running.

"We understand that all jurisdictions have their own processes, their own budget agenda, their own calendar that we need to respect. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t take the safety of athletes, children, teenagers, young adults across the country seriously," she said.

St-Onge was speaking after meeting with her provincial and territorial counterparts on the sidelines of the Canada Games in Charlottetown, where she said they compared different options for these mechanisms.

Prince Edward Island Health Minister Ernie Hudson, who hosted the meeting, told reporters the goal is "eliminating wrongdoers from sport" across Canada.

"This is not — for us or anybody else — a rush to get it done. It’s a rush to get it done right," he said.

"It is only through a pan-Canadian approach that we can help sport truly be a force for good in our nation, for athletes at every level, at every ability, at every age group," he said.

Recent allegations of abuse and harassment involving Hockey Canada — as well as from athletes in bobsled, skeleton and gymnastics — have led to what St-Onge has called a crisis.

She told a parliamentary committee this month that part of the problem stems from lack of coherence in how complaints are handled across the country.

"What is important is that we have consistency in the system. At the moment, what we see is that it's very disparate," she told the House status of women committee last week, in French.

"I'm not passing the buck to anyone, but the reality is the sports system touches multiple jurisdictions and I can't fix it alone," she added, in English.

Last month, dozens of Canadian and global sport scholars signed a letter calling for a national inquiry to examine "widespread reports of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse of athletes throughout the country's sport system."

Those academics argued Ottawa's current plans don't do enough to hold people accountable.

St-Onge said Saturday that resolving the issue requires sports organizations to ensure people face consequences. Coaches and parents must also be informed and show leadership, she added.

"It's really a collective responsibility," she said in French.

"There is no single person who will be able to change the culture in a sport, or who will completely succeed in stopping abuse and mistreatment. It's really a responsibility that is shared."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 19, 2023.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press