A group of five former competitive athletes with the national artistic swimming team has filed a proposed class-action lawsuit against governing body Canada Artistic Swimming for allegedly failing to provide a safe environment for swimmers.
The plaintiffs — who are elite artistic swimmers from Quebec, Ontario and Alberta — allege they were subjected to psychological abuse, neglect and harassment, including sexual and racial harassment by coaches and staff. None of the allegations have been proven in court.
Gabriella Brisson, who was a member of the national team from 2012 to 2018, described a “toxic culture” that she says remains the norm during a press conference Tuesday.
“This is a tale of physical, psychological abuse, neglects and discrimination,” she said.
The synchronized swimmers, who were all members of the program between 2007 and 2020, are seeking $250,000 in punitive damages in the proposed class action that was submitted to Quebec’s Superior Court on Monday.
“CAS’s failure to meet its obligations to the athletes placed (and continues to place) them in an untenable position: either endure the psychological abuse, neglect and harassment or give up their dreams of representing Canada at the international level,” the document reads.
The lawsuit comes after Canada Artistic Swimming released results of an independent investigation last fall into complaints about harassment and a culture of fear at the team’s training centre in Montreal.
The probe found no instances of physical abuse, sexual abuse or hazing — but nearly half of those interviewed said they had witnessed or experienced psychological abuse by coaches, staff or other athletes.
‘We can do better’
In a statement, Canada Artistic Swimming said Tuesday it “commends the courage it took the former national team athletes to speak out” at the press conference and that the organization is “deeply saddened by the suffering they reported.”
“We have heard what they said, and our work to make sure athletes will always be afforded a safe training environment going forward is well underway,” the statement reads.
The governing body doesn’t address the proposed class action directly, but does say it has taken steps following its previous investigation and put additional measures in place in recent months, including creating an ombudsman office to handle complaints.
However, the CAS does say the independent safe-sport investigation late last year did not find “sufficient evidence to conclude there is an unsafe training environment in the senior national team program.”
“Like many national sport organizations, CAS is clearly defining what are appropriate coaching practices and techniques for elite athletes and when those coaching practices cross a line,” the organization wrote.
The CAS says it is committed to athletes’ well-being and it will “continue to work diligently in this area to show our athletes we can do better.”
— With files from Global News’ Brayden Jagger Haines and The Canadian Press