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Committee study on abuse in sport will look to expand beyond just hockey, MPs say

OTTAWA — The House of Commons committee investigating abuse in sport will reconvene next week to hash out how to expand its probe beyond Hockey Canada.
Chris Bittle responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons Friday, February 21, 2020 in Ottawa. The Liberal MP on the committee investigating abuse in sport says it's time to hear from experts who can identify the best ways to make both sports organizations and the athletes and coaches they serve accountable for their actions. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

OTTAWA — The House of Commons committee investigating abuse in sport will reconvene next week to hash out how to expand its probe beyond Hockey Canada.

MPs on the committee say their inquiries must find a way to hold all sports organizations, coaches and athletes accountable for inappropriate and abusive behaviour.

Liberal MP Chris Bittle, one of 12 regular members on the Canadian Heritage committee, said the departure of Hockey Canada's president and board of directors Tuesday was necessary, but that alone "is not a substitute for culture change."

The committee launched its investigation into Hockey Canada in June, after it came to light that the organization settled a lawsuit with a woman who alleged eight members of the 2018 national junior team sexually assaulted her after a Hockey Canada gala in London, Ont.

Bittle said there needs to be a focus now on how to fix what ails not only Hockey Canada, but the deep cultural issues across many sports that have prompted a look-the-other-way attitude when medals and glory are on the line.

"We can look at whether there are organizations that are putting athletes on such pedestals that there are no consequences for their actions, including this case that has led to our inquiry where there didn't seem to be any consequences," Bittle said in an interview.

Hockey Canada officials told the committee in June they learned about the alleged assault the day after the London gala, but an internal investigation was not able to identify the players involved and no disciplinary action was taken.

"Why wasn't there a look to say, 'There's certain people who shouldn't be wearing the Maple Leaf on their chest representing Canada moving forward'?" Bittle asked. "If there's no consequences for coaches and athletes in terms of their conduct, it's going to be worse."

NDP MP Peter Julian said the leadership overhaul at Hockey Canada does not change the "fundamental issues around how Hockey Canada treats these horrific allegations of sexual violence, treats sexual abuse, treats victims."

Getting to the bottom of that should be a priority for the committee, but Julian said those questions need to be asked of many more sporting organizations.

"It's not just Hockey Canada that is not taking seriously the issues of protecting athletes and protecting the public," he said. "So there is a lot of work for our committee still to do."

The committee normally meets on Tuesdays and Fridays when the House of Commons is sitting and Julian said he expects the first meeting next week will be spent discussing where the inquiry now needs to go and which witnesses are still to be called.

"I think it's fair to say all members of the committee understand that this is beyond hockey, that this is a crisis in national sports organizations," said Julian. "And I expect that we will continue the hearings and broaden that mandate on that basis."

Allegations of psychological, physical and sexual abuse have arisen in multiple sports in Canada in recent years including rowing, boxing, rugby, skiing and soccer.

Hundreds of athletes in gymnastics and bobsled signed open letters in March calling for independent investigations of abuse and toxic environments. Both letters suggest athletes were afraid to speak up earlier for fear of being punished and left off national and Olympic teams.

In 2018, a lawsuit was filed against Alpine Canada by former skiers who said the organization covered up sexual abuse at the hands of a coach in part to prevent a loss of sponsorships.

Julian said the issue is not just that sporting organizations have been allowing toxic environments, but also that the federal government hasn't done anything to stop it.

"The federal government has let national sports organizations run themselves with no oversight, with no obligations, and that has to fundamentally change," said Julian.

That is starting to change. Sport Minister Pascale St.-Onge suspended federal funding for both Hockey Canada and Gymnastics Canada earlier this year when the abuse allegations arose.

She is overhauling the contribution agreements so that sports bodies have to show accountability, transparency and a commitment to safe sport in order to receive federal money.

To get funding next year, all sporting organizations are required to sign on with the new sporting integrity commissioner, who was hired in June to implement a "Universal Code of Conduct to Prevent and Address Maltreatment in Sport."

As of now, only two national federations have signed on: Volleyball Canada and Weightlifting Canada.

In its first three months of operation, the integrity commissioner's office received 24 formal complaints, but two-thirds were related to people in sporting organizations that haven't yet signed on to the process.

Only six of the complaints were considered admissible under the commissioner's jurisdiction.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 12, 2022.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press