Canada’s sports integrity commissioner under microscope for low complaint intake

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The low intake of complaints by Canada’s new office of the sport integrity commissioner has grabbed the attention of former athletes and a Canadian MP.

The office admitted eight of 24 complaints and reports between Sept. 20 and Dec. 31, and deemed the rest not under its jurisdiction or authority.

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“We need to make sure that when there are complaints that they’re not just being pushed aside,” said Conservative MP Karen Vecchio, who chairs a Status of Women committee studying the safety of women and girls in sport.

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“I’ve seen several complaints where you send a complaint in and there’s been no response or the response is ‘this isn’t our problem.’ They just keep on knocking on doors and doors keep on getting closed on them.”

Canada’s sports minister Pascale St-Onge appointed Sarah-Eve Pelletier as the country’s first sport integrity commissioner amid a wave of current and retired athletes pointing to their toxic cultures in their sports and demanding change.

The office (OSIC) began hearing both complaints and reports June 20, 2022. A report gives people the avenue to provide information to OSIC, but doesn’t automatically start a formal complaint process.

OSIC’s authority is limited to sports whose governing bodies have completed the process of becoming signatories to OSIC’s abuse-free sport program and have agreed to those terms.

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Only five had done so by Sept. 19, which was a factor in two-thirds of 24 complaints rejected in OSIC’s first quarter.

Another 18 national sport federations were on board by Dec. 31, with 18 of the 24 second-quarter complaints and reports involving sports that were signatories.

Ten of those 18 were rejected.

Other than the signatory component, there are two other jurisdictional reasons why OSIC can’t process a complaint, Pelletier told The Canadian Press.

OSIC deals in matters under a Universal Code of Conduct to Prevent and Address Maltreatment in Sport, which covers grooming, neglect, physical, sexual and psychological abuse, as well as retaliation, failure to report maltreatment, false allegations and misuse of power.

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OSIC doesn’t deal in illegal sports betting, conflict of interest, team selection or athlete assistance program (carding) appeals.

Also, while a national sport organization may be a signatory, the sport’s provincial or territorial association or a club might not be.

“What we’ve observed in the second quarter is that a number of complaints were submitted that related to organizations that have indeed signed on to the OSIC, but perhaps the respondent or the person that was subject to complaint was at the level of participation not covered by that organization,” Pelletier explained.

Pelletier says if a complaint falls outside the scope of OSIC, she will do her best to find another remedy.

“If OSIC doesn’t have jurisdiction, our next-best scenario is to say ‘maybe they knocked on the wrong door,’ but maybe we’re able to identify a suitable place for this issue to be addressed,” she said.

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“My biggest concern is that someone who has an issue currently may not have a safe place to turn to and that speaks to the gaps in the system currently. Those gaps may exist at the club, provincial or territorial level in some instances.”

OSIC’s acceptance of complaints increased from 25 per cent to 33 per cent over the organization’s first six months of existence, Pelletier said.

She expects that number to rise again in the first quarter of 2023 because St-Onge wants all national sport organizations signed on to OSIC by April lest they lose their federal funding.

St-Onge’s spokesperson said Wednesday more details about OSIC’s second-quarter numbers were needed before the minister would comment.

“I realize OSIC is new, but a 33 per cent admissibility rate is abysmal and doesn’t bode well,” tweeted lawyer and former gymnast Amelia Cline.

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“How will survivors ever find justice? We need a national inquiry.”

Cline is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed last year in B.C. against Gymnastics Canada and six provincial associations claiming physical and psychological damages suffered over many years as an athlete.

“It’s extremely harmful when survivors come forward and are turned away, ignored or told they can’t be helped,” wrote retired gymnast Abby Spadafora in a social media post.

“Canadian children in sports deserve better than this. It is time for a national judicial inquiry.”

She’s one of 11 former gymnasts known as “Bluewater Survivors,” who pushed for a third-party investigation and testified in the 2020 disciplinary procedure against coaches Dave and Elizabeth Brubaker.

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The Montreal-based director general of Global Athlete doesn’t believe OSIC or the Sports Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada, which was established in 2003, are up to the task of justice for athletes.

“We have said time and time again that sport cannot self-regulate and both of these structures are sport entities,” Rob Koehler said. “Abuse in sport needs to be dealt with at all levels from an independent organization outside sport.

“There is a reason we have been asking for a judicial inquiry. We need to understand the shortcomings to establish better and safer sport across the country. An inquiry is that first crucial step to a more robust and safer sport in Canada.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 11, 2023.

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