Parliamentary hearing on Canada Soccer turns testy with Crooks' veracity questioned
Newly elected Canada Soccer president Charmaine Crooks went before the Heritage Committee on Thursday, telling MPs she sees an "opportunity to reset" the beleaguered governing body.
"I strongly believe that we will be in a better place," said Crooks, touting her belief in "trust, transparency and open communication."
The former Olympian was the latest Canada Soccer official to appear before the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, with the governing body's ongoing labour dispute and past practises up for scrutiny by MPs.
Crooks' first questioner was Conservative MP Kevin Waugh, who opened by saying: "I don't have to tell you the national teams are absolutely pissed off with you and your organization."
In a planned two-hour session that started more than an hour late and was cut short as a result, Crooks deftly handled most of the incoming questions.
But several MPs jumped on her inability to remember whether she had seconded the controversial agreement with Canadian Soccer Business and whether she was involved in a meeting in which former president Nick Bontis, referring to Canada captain Christine Sinclair, said crudely "What was it Christine was bitching about?"
And things got testy towards the end of the session when Conservative MP Rachael Thomas, citing Crooks' body language, questioned her veracity.
"I wonder if you're lying. Are you being totally truthful with us today? Or are you skirting our questions?"
A stony-faced Crooks replied: "I vehemently reject that notion."
Crooks appeared before the committee by video conference.
Under repeated questioning about Canada Soccer's controversial deal with Canadian Soccer Business, Crooks said the organization is working "to modernize" the agreement, looking at the term limits and how sponsorship can be increased.
"It was a deal at the time that was good," Crooks said. "Now times have changed."
Under the long-term "representation agreement'' announced in March 2018, Canadian Soccer Business took charge of sponsorship and broadcast rights in exchange for an annual payment — currently around $3 million — to Canada Soccer. CSB uses its portion of the proceeds to fund the men's Canadian Premier League.
Critics say the deal is too rigid, too long and doesn't allow for Canada Soccer to benefit from the recent success of the men's and women's teams.
Crooks was elevated to acting president from vice-president after Bontis resigned in late February, acknowledging change was needed to achieve labour peace with the Canadian men's and women's teams.
The former track star beat out former Canada Soccer vice-president Rob Newman for the top elected job at the governing body's annual meeting last weekend in Saint John, N.B. Crooks had been summoned to testify before the parliamentary committee last week, but her appearance was delayed because the scheduled hearing clashed with the annual meeting.
Her term as president is for a year, the time that Bontis' appointment would have lasted. There will then be an election for a full four-year term.
Crooks, a five-time Olympian who earned silver in the 4x400 track relay at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, has been on the Canada Soccer board since 2012-13 and served as vice-president since January 2021.
Crooks used her opening statement to detail her past accomplishments and offer some direction on her future as the "newly elected volunteer" president of Canada Soccer.
"As a woman of colour who has been part of the elite global sport system, I’ve experienced both the wonderful and unfortunate realities that co-exist in sport," she said. "Whether abuse comes straight at you or in the form of micro-aggressions, the pain and the damage are real. As leaders, we have a duty to stamp that out.
"I believe I’ve earned the opportunity, and have recently been elected, to take on the leadership of Canada Soccer and use my experiences to help improve and to heal."
Crooks listed her "key priorities" for Canada Soccer as realizing pay equity, managing national team budgets to ensure success, holding discussions with Canadian Soccer Business "to ensure both parties benefit equally from this partnership," getting more players and people from the business world engaged in the governing body's governance, providing more voting power for members and ensuring "full administrative and financial transparency."
"Lastly, I intend to build an environment in which people feel safe to participate in our sport, voice their opinions and where diverse opinions are valued and discussed safely," she added.
Bontis, outgoing general secretary Earl Cochrane and former president Steven Reed have already testified, as have Canada Soccer vice-president-elect Paul-Claude Berube, chief financial officer Sean Heffernan, board member Stephanie J. Geosits and CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani, a Vancouver native who is a former Canada Soccer president.
Sinclair and teammates Janine Beckie, Sophie Schmidt and Quinn, who goes by one name, have also appeared before the parliamentary committee.
The sixth-ranked women's team, which formed the Canadian Soccer Players' Association in 2016, has been without a labour deal since the last one expired at the end of 2021. The 47th-ranked men, who organized last summer as the Canada Men's National Soccer Team Players Association, are working on their first formal labour agreement.
Both teams have resorted to job action over their dissatisfaction at the labour impasse.
The men boycotted a planned friendly against Panama last June in Vancouver. And the women's team briefly downed tools before the SheBelieves Cup in February before being forced back onto the pitch by threats of legal action from Canada Soccer.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 11, 2023.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press