Are harrassment, abuse policies falling behind?
Sheldon Kennedy’s sexual abuse case against hockey coach Graham James rocked Canadian sport in the late 1990s, and Canada stepped up, writing one of the strongest sexual harassment and abuse policies in the world, experts say.
But 20 years later, most believe Canada has fallen asleep on the job. When it comes to protecting its athletes, the country now lags behind the U.S., Australia and the United Kingdom, according to a recent report. The ongoing trial of gymnastics coach Dave Brubaker plus high-profile cases in Alpine Canada and the Canadian Olympic Committee are proof.
What’s going on when the lights of Canada’s arenas and gymnasiums are dimmed? And why have people remained mum about it?
“What we had was really progressive in the mid-90s to early 2000s, and it’s just become stale,” said Peter Donnelly, a kinesiology and physical education professor from the University of Toronto.
“Now we know a lot more about the way abuse occurs in sport, we have a much better sense of how tracked the athletes are once they’re in the system, when their parents have committed so much money and time to it, when very often the abuser has groomed their parents, kids and young adults feel trapped, they’re getting closer to their dream, and this is happening to them.”
Brubaker is the former coach of the national women’s gymnastics team. He’s pleaded not guilty to sexual assault and invitation to sexual touching at a trial that will resume next month in Sarnia, Ont.
In June, Canada’s Sport Minister Kirsty Duncan announced that national sport organizations (NSOs) would lose their funding if they didn’t immediately disclose to her office any allegations of abuse or harassment. She also said having an independent third party investigate all allegations of abuse will be a requirement of government funding.
In their recent paper, however, Donnelly and fellow U of T professor Gretchen Kerr say those policies have been in place since 1996, as part of the Sport Canada Accountability Framework. They’re just not being adequately applied.
In “Revising Canada’s Policies on Harassment and Abuse in Sport,” Donnelly and Kerr found that of the 42 NSOs and their provincial counterparts (PSOs) they interviewed, only 13.9 per cent of NSOs, and 10 per cent of PSOs (provincial sport organizations) identified a harassment officer. None of them identified the officer as third-party or “arms length.”
Kerr and Donnelly say sport has to get away from self-regulation.
“That’s what we’ve had since 1996, and between our research and the high-profile cases that have emerged, it’s clear evidence that self-regulation is not working,” Kerr said, noting the other major sectors of society — the Catholic Church and Boy Scouts, for example — that have moved away from self-regulation.
Kerr, who’s volunteered with Gymnastics Canada as an athlete welfare officer for 30 years, said the problem is multifaceted. It’s difficult to find volunteers to perform a highly-specialized job. Some cases are incredibly timeconsuming. And often, the job falls to an NSO staff member, “often times their own CEO,” she said.
“Which is just crazy, it’s a huge conflict of interest,” Kerr said.
“What we had was really progressive in the mid-90s to early 2000s, and it’s just become stale.” – Peter Donnelly, kinesiology and
physical education professor