Canadian sport can’t be all about medals, says sports minister St-Onge

Canada’s Sports Minister Pascale St-Onge says the emphasis on athletes winning medals needs to change due to the recent explosion in abuse and maltreatment complaints across the country.

Canada’s Sports Minister Pascale St-Onge says the emphasis on athletes winning medals needs to change due to the recent explosion in abuse and maltreatment complaints across the country.

“It can’t just be about medals and podiums,” she said Monday at a parliamentary committee hearing in Ottawa.

“We need to talk about the safety of the athletes and their overall well-being.”

Redefining excellence in national sports policy would represent a departure from the high-performance mandate established ahead of the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and Whistler, BC

The host team’s performance was seen as essential to the success of these Games, leaving Canadian taxpayers feeling they were getting a bang for their Olympic money.

Canadian teams won big medals at the 2010 and subsequent Summer and Winter Olympics, but the pressure to perform and get on the podium has also been cited as fueling a toxic culture of silence about athlete abuse.

“The discussion is really about how we define excellence. I think previous mandates were about medals and podiums,” said St-Onge.

“Now we must consider the excellence of the organizations themselves in how they incorporate athlete welfare into a holistic approach.”

Taxpayers are the largest contributor to Olympic and Paralympic sports in Canada, spending over US$200 million annually.

St-Onge, who was appointed sports minister two years ago, was grilled by the Standing Committee on the Status of Women as part of its hearings on women and girls in sport.

Among those who appeared before the committee and made harrowing testimonies, Canadian cyclist Genevieve Jeanson said in December her trainer first hit her when she was 14, sexually abused her when she was 15 and put her on performance-enhancing drugs when she was 16 .

“There is simply no reason, no justification for sport to be synonymous with abuse,” St-Onge said Monday.

The minister was asked about a national public inquiry into abuse in sport, a coaches registry to prevent abusers from moving to other jurisdictions and how St-Onge intends to use her power to fund and defund sports organizations to stop abuse to stop.

Her department oversees 70 national sports organizations under the 94 bodies under her umbrella.

St-Onge set up the Office of the Sports Integrity Officer (OSIC) last year, with former artistic swimmer Sarah-Ève Pelletier appointed as the first officer.

All organizations must sign this office by April 1 or risk losing their federal funding.

Forty-three have signed so far, St-Onge said, but Pelletier’s reach doesn’t extend to the provincial or club level so far.

Some complaints have been rejected because they are outside the Commissioner’s jurisdiction.

“Even if all national sports organizations sign up, there will still be a huge gap that we cannot ignore,” St-Onge said.

“While the federal government and national sports organizations are responsible for approximately 3,700 athletes, the vast majority of abuse and mistreatment cases occur outside of the federal sphere.

“They take place in local clubs, leagues and gyms, all of which are the responsibility of the province’s territorial and local governments.”

St-Onge will meet fellow territorial and provincial athletes on Saturday and Sunday at the start of the Canadian Winter Games on Prince Edward Island.

It will ask them to either register with OSIC or set up their own independent secure sports coverage mechanism, as Quebec and New Brunswick have done.

“There is a huge gap in the system,” said the minister. “It needs to be closed as soon as possible.

“Regardless of level, a child entering this sports system should know who to turn to if they have experienced situations that are unacceptable.”

NDP MP Bonita Zarrillo accused St-Onge of “passing the buck” and Bloc Québécois MP Sébastien Lemire didn’t think St-Onge was doing fast enough for a safe sport.

“Time is of the essence,” Lemire said. “You’ve had your mandate for over a year and I don’t think the sport has gotten any safer since then.

“We can see that things only move once they have been released. If not, the machine is only protecting itself.

“We need an independent investigation so that we can understand the mechanisms.”

Lemire repeated calls from various quarters, including athletes, following a national public inquiry.

St-Onge responded that she does not want to re-traumatize athletes who have experienced abuse.

“There are athletes I’ve spoken to, victims who have told me they don’t want to relive their trauma, so it’s important to me that the mechanism we’re going to implement is a safe space,” She said.

St-Onge says she’s looking at ways to create a coaching registry, which she says Pelletier would like too.

A registry of certified coaches, with those under sanctions delisted or not listed, is one option, she said.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on February 13, 2023.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

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