Canada’s sports integrity commissioner under scrutiny for low number of complaints

Canada’s new sports integrity commissioner’s low number of complaints has caught the attention of former athletes and a Canadian MP.

The office accepted eight of the 24 complaints and reports between September 20 and December 31, and deemed the rest to be outside its jurisdiction or authority.

“We have to make sure that when there are complaints they are not just brushed aside,” said Conservative MP Karen Vecchio, who chairs the Status of Women Committee which studies the safety of women and girls in sport.

“I’ve seen a few complaints where you send a complaint and there’s no response or the response is ‘it’s not our problem.’ They just keep knocking on the door and the door keeps being closed.”

Canada’s Sports Minister Pascale St-Onge has appointed Sarah-Eve Pelletier as the country’s first sports integrity commissioner amid a wave of current and retired athletes pointing to toxic cultures in their sports and demanding change.

The Office (OSIC) began considering both complaints and reports on 20 June 2022. The report gives people the opportunity to provide information to OSIC, but does not automatically trigger a formal complaint process.

OSIC’s powers are limited to sports whose governing bodies have completed the process of signing OSIC’s abuse-free sports program and agreed to these conditions.

Only five had done so by September 19, accounting for two-thirds of the 24 appeals rejected in OSIC’s first quarter.

Another 18 national sports federations had signed on by Dec. 31, with 18 of the 24 complaints and reports in the second quarter involving signatory sports.

Ten of those 18 were rejected.

Aside from the signatory component, there are two other jurisdictional reasons why OSIC cannot process the appeal, Pelletier told The Canadian Press.

OSIC deals with issues under the Universal Code of Conduct to prevent and address abuse in sport, which covers grooming, neglect, physical, sexual and psychological abuse, as well as retaliation, failure to report abuse, false accusations and abuse of power.

OSIC does not deal with illegal sports betting, conflict of interest, team selection or appeals against the sportsmen’s assistance program (carding).

Also, while a national sports organization may be a signatory, a provincial or territorial sports association or club may not be.

“What we’ve noticed in the second quarter is that a few complaints have been filed that relate to organizations that have actually joined OSIC, but maybe the respondent or the person who was the subject of the complaint was at a level of participation not covered by that organization,” he explained. Pelletier.

‘Flaws in the system’

Pelletier says he will try to find another remedy if the complaint does not fall under OSIC’s purview.

“If OSIC doesn’t have jurisdiction, our next best scenario is to say ‘maybe they knocked on the wrong door,’ but maybe we can identify an appropriate place to deal with this,” she said.

“My biggest concern is that someone who has a problem right now may not have a safe place to turn to and that speaks to the current gaps in the system. Those gaps can exist at club, provincial or territorial level in some cases.”

OSIC’s acceptance of complaints increased from 25 percent to 33 percent during the organization’s first six months, Pelletier said.

She expects that number to rise again in the first quarter of 2023 as St-Onge wants all national sports organizations to sign OSIC by April to avoid losing federal funding.

A spokesman for St-Onge said on Wednesday that more details were needed on OSIC’s second-quarter numbers before the minister could comment.

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It calls for a national inquiry

“I realize OSIC is new, but the 33 percent acceptance rate is incredible and does not bode well,” attorney and former gymnast Amelia Cline tweeted.

“How will the survivors ever find justice? We need a national inquiry.”

Cline is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed last year in BC against Gymnastics Canada and six provincial federations seeking physical and psychological harm he suffered over many years as an athlete.

“It is extremely hurtful when survivors come forward and are rejected, ignored or told they can’t be helped,” retired gymnast Abby Spadafora wrote in a social media post.

“Canadian kids in sport deserve better than this. It’s time for a national judicial inquiry.”

She is one of 11 former gymnasts known as the “Bluewater Survivors,” who advocated for a third-party investigation and testified in a 2020 disciplinary hearing against coaches Dave and Elizabeth Brubaker.

The CEO of Montreal-based Global Athlete doesn’t believe OSIC or the Canadian Sports Dispute Resolution Centre, which was established in 2003, are up to the task of justice for athletes.

“We have said many times that sport cannot regulate itself and that both of these structures are sports entities,” said Rob Koehler. “Abuse in sport should be dealt with at all levels by an independent organization outside of sport.

“There is a reason why we asked for a judicial inquiry. We need to understand the deficiencies in order to establish a better and safer sport across the country. The inquiry is that first crucial step towards a stronger and safer sport in Canada.”

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