Elite athletes demand public inquiry into abuse in sports

Elite athletes appeared before a House of Commons committee Monday to accuse the federal government of doing nothing in response to abuse in sports and to demand a national public inquiry.

Soccer players, boxer, fencer describe rampant abuse in sport during Commons committee appearance

Athletes Andrea Neil and Ciara McCormack are pictured at a Commons committee.

Elite athletes appeared before a House of Commons committee Monday to accuse the federal government of doing nothing in response to abuse in sports and to demand a national public inquiry.

The athletes — who included Olympic boxer Myriam Da Silva Rondeau, soccer players Ciara McCormack and Andrea Neil, and fencer Emily Mason — told MPs about the physical and mental abuse they endured at the hands of coaches and others officials.

They said that abuse is rampant in multiple sports and they're calling for a fundamental re-think of how elite sports are governed in Canada.

The athletes said existing protections are inadequate and whistleblowers are often scared to come forward because they fear retribution from their abusers, many of whom still work in sport despite past allegations of wrongdoing.

McCormack told MPs she was forced to leave Canada for Ireland to escape abuse at the hands of Bob Birarda, a former Vancouver Whitecaps and national coach who recently was convicted of sex offences.

McCormack said she and others reported Birarda's abuse to Canada Soccer, the sport's governing body, but the organization protected this "known predator" for years.

She claimed Canada Soccer is riddled with "rampant conflicts of interest … zero oversight" and financial mismanagement.

She said that such allegations should be probed through a national inquiry.

WATCH: 'I just feel ashamed … to be a Canadian': professional soccer player

‘I just feel ashamed … to be a Canadian,’ former professional soccer player says

12 hours ago

Duration 1:33

Testifying before a parliamentary committee about safe sport in Canada, former professional soccer player Ciara McCormack says she doesn’t ‘understand what is holding back a national inquiry … Is the minister of sport watching, is the prime minister watching … whoever is making these decisions, are they watching?’

"It's shocking that there's nothing being done," McCormack said of the federal government.

"How many times do we have to keep telling you all how this has massively impacted our lives in a really substantial manner? I don't understand, on a human level, how you can literally witness this car accident over and over again and do nothing. It's very disappointing."

McCormack wondered aloud how seriously Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge and her government are taking the problem.

"Is she even watching? Is the prime minister watching? Are they watching?" she asked MPs. "It's so disappointing. I feel ashamed to be a Canadian."

St-Onge told reporters the government will do something to address athlete concerns but hasn't decided yet whether there should be a public inquiry or some sort of "investigation." Either way, the minister said, the process will be "trauma-informed."

"If we want to better protect children and our national athletes, we need to know what's happening and how we can improve the sport system," she said.

Andrea Neil, a former Canadian women's national soccer team player and assistant coach, also reported Monday a poor experience with Canada Soccer.

She said it's an "old boy's club" that's more interested in "denying and deflecting" stories of abuse than in meaningfully addressing wrongdoing throughout the sport.

Neil said she raised concerns about Soccer Canada's management of the women's national team and the continued employment of Birarda, who had been credibly accused of sexual misconduct.

She alleged she was punished for coming forward with concerns about "a lack of ethics" in the organization.

As a result, Neil claimed, her coaching certification was blocked and Soccer Canada withheld some of the money she was owed. She called it an experience in "institutional gaslighting."

She said she's uneasy with Canada Soccer organizing the forthcoming 2026 FIFA World Cup, which will be held at some Canadian venues.

She urged MPs to compel the government to launch a public inquiry, saying soccer's "toxic and authoritarian culture needs to end."

Canada Soccer said in a press release that it has instituted "a complete organizational redesign and realignment," a process that includes "leadership training and skills development for all staff as well as fostering a more inclusive executive leadership team."

Canada Soccer also announced last week it has "agreed to part ways" with Earl Cochrane, the governing body's general secretary. Cochrane faced a grilling from MPs last month over his management of the embattled sports organization.

Despite claims that they're willing to change, Neil said, "there's a big gap in what they're saying and what they're doing. It's a massive problem."

'Toxicity, bullying and abuse'

Emily Mason, is a former fencer who is now part of Fencing for Change Canada, a group that represents current and past Olympic and national fencers. She said her sport has a culture of "toxicity, bullying and abuse."

She told MPs of one coach who allegedly hosted female athletes at his home for a training camp only to bring out sex toys for a live demonstration.

Mason said the sanctions imposed on this coach were inadequate — an apology letter and a four-month competition ban at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

After experiencing abuse, Mason said she left the sport at age 17 grappling with a "mental health crisis," which led to a suicide attempt.

"Our athletes are hurting, my friends are hurting and it's time for a change," Mason said. "A public inquiry into Canadian sport culture is so imperative."

WATCH: Former fencer calls for 'public inquiry into Canadian sport culture'

Former top fencer calls for ‘public inquiry into Canadian sport culture’

9 hours ago

Duration 4:11

While speaking before a parliamentary committee focusing on safe sport in Canada, Emily Mason, founder of Fencing for Change Canada, discusses the ‘culture of toxicity, bullying and abuse pervasive in Canadian fencing.’

Mason said, for too long, sports organizations like Canadian Fencing Federation have "prioritized medals over the lives of athletes."

She said the federation hasn't cut ties with abusive coaches because they deliver results.

Myriam Da Silva Rondeau, an Olympic boxer and Pan American Games silver medallist, was one of 121 boxers who wrote an open letter to Sport Canada last year calling for the resignation of high-performance director Daniel Trépanier. He resigned four days later.

Da Sila Rondeau told MPs that she's now being sued by someone she accused of creating a toxic sporting environment.

She said the legal costs, combined with the costs of intensive therapy to help address mental health issues, have stretched her financially.

She said athletes need more support when they come forward to report mistreatment. As it stands, victims are left to twist in the wind, she said.

Liberal MP Kirsty Duncan, who went on leave earlier this year to address a health issue, released a statement Monday blasting what she called government inaction on this file.

Duncan, who has said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet ignored her demands for change when she served as sport minister from 2015 to 2019, said calls for an inquiry have so far "fallen on deaf ears."

Duncan said a number of sports governing bodies have put forward "a disappointing list of excuses" to explain why an inquiry should not be held, while also claiming abuse issues can be handled in-house.

"It is past time for an independent, comprehensive, systemic inquiry focused on the health, safety and wellbeing of athletes," Duncan said. "While the government now 'assesses' the possibility of an inquiry, athletes have lost yet another year."

She said national sport organizations like Canada Soccer need to be "thoroughly investigated" and that any such probe should also look at their finances.


John Paul Tasker

Senior writer

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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