Canadian sport is in crisis. Reports of misconduct make the headlines with disturbing regularity. Many sports federations under Sport Canada seem saturated with harassment, intimidation and abuse.
In response, the Government of Canada created a new Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner (OSIC). Sports Minister Pascale St-Onge believes that the OSIC, which began work earlier this year, provides athletes with a reporting structure capable of responding to the growing allegations.
The OSIC is mandated to maintain and administer the Universal code of conduct to prevent and combat ill-treatment in sport (UCCMS) and “using trauma-informed processes that are compassionate, effective and provide fairness, respect and fairness to all parties involved”. The Code of Conduct aims to establish common principles, foster a culture of respect in sport and provide a framework for sanctions against prohibited behavior.
“I’m glad we have an independent mechanism,” St-Onge said in June. “I know that the first years are going to be tough, but what I hope is that we can have a future where athletes, as soon as situations arise, they know (to whom) they can turn, to that we can intervene as quickly as possible.
By putting pressure on the powers that be, the voice of the athletes has prompted change. But is the OSIC sufficient? And is it independent?
The road to OSIC
In 2019, researchers from the University of Toronto partnered with AthletesCAN to release a report on the mistreatment of current and former national team athletes. AthletesCAN is an association that represents national team athletes in Canada.
The report illustrates the prevalence of mistreatment and abuse experienced by national athletes. This led to other discussions, including the AthletesCAN Safe Sport Summit, on protecting the country’s athletes.
AthletesCAN is at the forefront when it comes to protecting athletes. The group believes that while the OSIC is an encouraging start, additional measures will also be needed.
“The Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner is one piece of the puzzle,” AthletesCAN said when I spoke with them. “But to truly solve the sport security crisis, the effort must come from all stakeholders in sport – the Canadian sport community cannot rely solely on OSIC to make sport safer. That said, the new mechanism developed by the SDRCC was greatly needed as a foundation and funding was provided to them.
OSIC: good, but not enough
The OSIC is supposed to be an “independent mechanism for safe sport”, under the aegis of the Sport Dispute Resolution Center of Canada (SDRCC). But it’s fair to wonder how independent he can be. After all, the SDRCC is funded by Sport Canada. Can the organization that has helped the abuse crisis reach its current heights be trusted to police itself in the future?
Rob Koehler, chief executive of Global Athlete, a global athlete advocacy initiative, doesn’t think so. He worries that OSIC is a band-aid solution, rather than a concerted government effort to address widespread abuse in the Canadian sports system.
“Canadian sport and the Government of Canada need to change direction and commit to taking the issue of abuse out of their purview,” Koehler said when I spoke to him about the issue. “As we have seen over the past year, sport and sports administrators are in conflict and most want to avoid scandals for fear of damaging their brands.”
By dealing with claims of abuse with an internal mechanism, the Government of Canada is neglecting experts better able to help survivors and ignoring the potential conflicts of interest of its own sports administrators.
The government has long treated sport as a sort of socio-cultural island, requiring its own regulations of sorts beyond the laws and processes of the nation more broadly. As Koehler told me:
“To be clear, abuse in sport is not a sport problem; it is a matter of human rights. “As a result, human rights experts outside of sport and trauma-informed investigators should handle any complaints of abuse. Sport, like any industry, needs oversight, accountability and transparency. Sport has none of that. This is why any investigation must be conducted by a third party judicial authority. Until the government demands these principles, sport will continue to be a breeding ground for abuse.
Third party monitoring
“I commend this government for creating OSIC… It’s necessary, but I don’t think it’s enough,” said Ann Peel, who helped establish AthletesCAN in 1992 and was the founding chair of the organization. ‘organization.
In the 1980s, Peel traveled the world representing Canada during her stellar running career. But it is in the area of athlete advocacy that she has won her greatest victories. With 30 years of experience advocating for athletes’ rights, Peel sees the value of both OSIC and independent investigations.
“A full-fledged independent investigation needs to take place to deal with these historic complaints alongside OSIC,” Peel told me. “I am concerned that OSIC’s use of a complaints mechanism will not address the systemic issues that we know exist in the sport. Only an independent investigation can do that.
Minister St-Onge’s work to develop safe sport mechanisms in Canada has made significant progress, but OSIC may prove insufficient to address the national backlog of historic cases. It’s hard to imagine OSIC making much progress on its own. While a useful and long overdue tool, OSIC is undeniably part of the system that has spawned such abuses.
The OSIC is an important first step, but I can’t imagine a solution that doesn’t also encompass an independent third-party forensic investigation.