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Sports Minister Pascale St-Onge wants to break the culture of silence surrounding abuse in sports

Sports Minister Pascale St-Onge arrives on Parliament Hill for a federal cabinet meeting in Ottawa on June 21.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Sport has always been a source of joy for Pascale St-Onge. A competitive swimmer for eleven years, then a volleyball player at the university, the Federal Sports Minister grew up with great coaches and like-minded fellow players. Her parents were involved and supportive.

That’s why, she says, she’s so impressed by the experiences of abuse and mistreatment at the hands of many top athletes across Canada.

“To hear all the stories about the athletes who have had bad experiences, whether it’s because they were mistreated, abused or harassed, I find it very, very devastating,” said Ms. St-Onge.

Revelations of abuse in sports — gymnastics, synchronized swimming, bobsleigh, and others — have piled up in recent years. Ms St-Onge’s predecessors, Kirsty Duncan and Steven Guilbeault, had enacted reforms for the country’s National Sport Organizations (NSOs). This included requiring all sporting authorities to have an anti-harassment policy and issuing the Sport Dispute Resolution Center of Canada (SDRCC), an independent national body the power to investigate allegations of abuse.

But further revelations of abuse and open letters from athletes to government agencies prompted Ms St-Onge, who was appointed sports minister in October, to take stronger action on the matter than originally indicated in her letter of mandate.

In April, she announced her new role as Sports Integrity Commissioner, responsible for investigating allegations of abuse in Canadian sports. In June, she made it mandatory for all NSOs to join the new office. Then in June, she froze Hockey Canada’s federal funds over its handling of 2018 sexual assault allegations. (In April, Hockey Canada settled a $3.55 million lawsuit involving a 24-year-old woman after she claimed so Eight Canadian Hockey League players sexually assaulted her in a hotel room in London, Ontario.)

Hockey Canada culture needs to change after ‘extremely horrific’ allegations of sexual assault, sports minister says

Ms. St-Onge, whose Cabinet role includes Minister in charge of Canada’s Economic Development Agency for Quebec’s regions, aspires to be a “change-maker” in Canadian politics. Beginning with the Canadian sports landscape, she works to break the culture of silence around abuse and bring joy back to sports. “It can’t just be about performance,” she said in an interview with The Globe. “It’s something athletes have been talking about since I started meeting with stakeholders.”

It’s a big undertaking for a young politician. Her first campaign was last September, when she won her seat for the Liberal Party in southern Quebec by less than 200 votes.

Growing up, she was a provincial and national level swimmer from the ages of six to 17 and competed in the breaststroke for the Club Aquatique de Saint-Eustache. In her senior year of high school, she began playing volleyball and went on to play at the University of Quebec in Montreal. She then earned a certificate in journalism from the University of Montreal. Aside from being an athlete, she played bass guitar in an alternative indie rock band called Mad June for eight years.

She then served as Secretary General and then President of the Fédération national des communication et de la culture in Montreal, where she represented members of the media, communications and culture sectors and worked with government to develop policies.

After 10 years, Ms St-Onge felt ready to leave the association. Two weeks before the start of the 2021 federal election campaign, she received a call from the then Minister for Economic Development and Official Languages, Mélanie Joly, and decided to run for the Liberals.

Much of what was acceptable in sport a few decades ago is no longer acceptable today, Ms St-Onge said. “When I was young it wasn’t so clear what was okay and what wasn’t and I feel like we’ve come a long way. Its a lot to do.”

On March 31, Ms. St-Onge held an emergency roundtable discussion with Canadian sports leaders and athletes in Ottawa to find solutions to abuse in sports. Attendees included the Executive Chair of the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC), David Shoemaker, representative of Olympic and Paralympic athletes, and Marie-Claude Asselin, Executive Chair of the SDRCC.

Rosie MacLennan, a two-time Olympic trampoline gold medalist, starred as The Chairman of the Athletes’ Commission COC. She is confident the system will change and was pleased to see the minister engaging athletes in the talks. Since the roundtable, Ms St-Onge and her office have held additional meetings with athlete representatives, Ms MacLennan said. “I think it’s going to take more than the minister’s office to really enable and adjust these things. But I feel committed. I have the feeling that the athletes are heard.”

On June 12, Ms. St-Onge announced that Sport Canada would be enacting changes to its eligibility requirements, requiring NSOs to join the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner by April 1, 2023. This means that NSOs are subject to an independent body when it comes to allegations of abuse or ill-treatment in their sport.

Ms St-Onge also said she will review the entire funding system before April 2023.

Ms MacLennan wants national sport organizations’ funding assessments to look beyond performance and examine the well-being of athletes and sport staff. The minister’s review should ensure better accountability and tie NSOs to a specific “cultural alignment”, she said.

Canada Basketball is one of the NSOs who made an early commitment to join the new Sports Integrity Bureau. Chief Executive Officer Michael Bartlett said it was time for Canadian society to get involved in these important conversations and commended the minister for “starting the fire”.

“As the minister clearly acknowledges that we cannot be in every space but there must be a process to protect every space – or every gym or every ice rink or every tennis court – she notes that this is top, top , top priority for sport across the country,” said Mr Bartlett.

Ms St-Onge said it was also important to recognize that abuse in sport does not only occur at the elite and national levels, but that the provincial and club levels of sport need to take these issues just as seriously. She indicated that one of her priorities will be to address these challenges with her provincial and territorial counterparts to truly transform the culture across the sports system.

Athlete safety should be at the forefront of decision making and athletes should be involved in the process.

“We need to create space for these voices to be heard.”

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