Abuse in sport calls for transformative justice – Winnipeg Free Press


In January 2023, dozens of scientists (including us) signed an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calling for an independent judicial investigation into widespread allegations of abuse in the country’s sports organizations.

Our Scholars Against Abuse in Canadian Sport movement includes experts in law, education, sociology, criminology, history, psychology and many other disciplines working together to address the problem of abuse in sport.

We’ve all come to the same conclusion – Canada urgently needs an independent judicial investigation. Such research, as legal scholar Daphne Gilbert recently explained, can “support ongoing efforts while providing a space to unpack the crisis and propose ideas for resolving it”.

Court investigations can take many forms, but as Judge Charles Dubin – who led the investigation into drugs and prohibited practices in sport in 1990 – explained, investigations are “looking for a way to correct past mistakes so they don’t happen again”.

A judicial investigation is an important first step in overcoming Canada’s abusive sports culture and laying the groundwork for a broader, transformative justice system.

Transformative justice pursues systemic change by placing survivors and perpetrators in social structures of the past and present. By addressing the root causes of violence, we can reinvent systems to enable more supportive, safe, and accountable communities. This can and should also include sport.

Only when the full extent of the misconduct has been recognized can real progress be made.

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However, a different approach is brought into play as the only solution: restorative justice.

Voluntariness is at the heart of most definitions of restorative justice. As legal scholar Annalize Acorn explains, survivors and perpetrators meet of their own free will to “balance meaningful—even strict—accountability for wrongdoing with compassion for victims and perpetrators.”

Restorative justice can offer an alternative to the more punitive and incarcerating aspects of the criminal justice system. Some members of marginalized communities, such as Black and Indigenous peoples who are overly surveilled and disproportionately imprisoned, may have a legitimate distrust of the criminal justice system and prefer a community-based restorative approach.

Although some survivors may benefit from restorative justice, the limitations of restorative justice processes suggest they may not only Action to Address and Eliminate Serious and Systemic Abuse in Canadian Sport.

Restorative justice is often based on the assumption that, to begin with, there was an ideal environment in the past that can be restored. It also seeks to restore interpersonal relationships rather than to bring about broad, systemic change. It is a reactive tool that cannot fix the institutional flaws and culture of violence that created and normalized the damage in the first place.

Two decades ago, justice reformer Ruth Morris argued, “Restorative justice does not go far enough. It still accepts the idea that an event now defines all that is right and wrong – it leaves out the past and social causes of all events.”

Restorative justice can also be problematic because it can replicate a cycle of abuse in which an abuser seeks reconciliation only to then continue the violence. Although restorative justice processes do not necessarily require forgiveness, survivors may feel pressured to forgive offenders.

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This is problematic because forgiveness prompts survivors to give up their justified negative feelings toward the abuser, implying that the survivor has moved on and suggesting that “society has permission to do so, too.”

Some survivors may not wish to engage in restorative justice for a number of reasons. For example, they understandably want no further communication with their abuser. In addition, the perpetrators must not be sincerely repentant. Whether individual athletes choose restorative justice or not, it is clear that such measures cannot transform an entire system.

An investigation would provide an opportunity for survivors to use their voice to tell the truth to those in power within a platform that can lead to meaningful, structural changes. Only after the stories have been told and the facts have been found can action be taken to directly right the wrongs that have been committed.

Since Parliament’s Standing Committee on the Status of Women stepped in to give survivors a voice, calls for a judicial investigation by the sport and academic communities have become clear. So far, however, the Canadian government has acted hesitantly.

Retired soccer player Ciara McCormack’s testimony to the standing committee was unequivocal: “Systemic change means shedding light on the financial relationships that sustain power, and uncovering and dismantling those relationships and systems that are damaging Canadian sporting institutions at the cost of the lives of Athletes protect…. Only a far-reaching judicial investigation into abuse in Canadian sport will shed a needed light on the harms of the past while restoring confidence for a brighter future.”

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On the same day as McCormack’s testimony, boxer Myriam Da Silva Rondeau called on the government to open an investigation.

“There can be no rebuilding unless a judicial inquiry is conducted by a third party to hold accountable the people who perpetuate abuses and current sports culture in Canada.”

Retired cyclist Geneviève Jeanson repeated her comments. As did former Team Canada football captain Andrea Neil: “Nothing can change until we turn on the lights and reckon with our position.”

Abuse depends on the victims being silenced. Not listening to survivors can be retraumatizing and limit their ability to act.

An investigation will uncover those responsible for athlete failures and prevent them from evading responsibility for wrongdoing.

This is a pivotal moment as talks about the need for safer sport have drawn public attention. We must ensure that the voices of the survivors inform decisions about how to proceed.

Relying solely on restorative justice would miss an important opportunity to fix a broken system. An independent judicial inquiry that enables sustainable, transformative justice must be part of the solution.

Shannon Giannitsopoulou is a PhD student in Education at the University of Toronto. MacIntosh Ross is an assistant professor of kinesiology at Western University. Martine Dennie is an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba. Nicole O’Byrne is an Associate Professor in the Law School of the University of New Brunswick.

This article was first published by The Conversation Canada:

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