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Canada’s sport integrity commissioner vows urgent action amid athlete complaints

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Sarah-Eve Pelletier calls this a pivotal moment in Canadian sport.

The lawyer and former artistic swimmer opened shop as Canada’s first sport integrity commissioner two weeks ago and, in what feels like not a moment too soon, she now faces the daunting task of trying to clean up Canadian sport amid a flurry of maltreatment complaints from hundreds of former and current athletes.

“There’s an opportunity, if we act collectively,” Pelletier said Wednesday. “It is the most important motivating factor in me taking on this role is that I want to be part of this important conversation. But there are so many things that need to happen so that no-one ever experiences any form of maltreatment or discrimination in sport in the future.”

Read more: Over a dozen athletes suing Gymnastics Canada, provincial bodies over alleged abuse

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But Pelletier, armed with two law degrees, and what she called a positive, joyful experience in her own sport, said she relishes the challenge.

“What has been the driver of my career so far has been to be a positive agent for change in sports,” she said.

The Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner (OSIC), which will operate within the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada (SDRCC), will start receiving and addressing complaints on June 20 of violations of the Universal Code of Conduct to Prevent and Address Maltreatment in Sport.

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There was a sense of urgency, Pelletier said, to begin operations amid what Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge has called a safe sport “crisis” in Canadian sport. More than 1,000 athletes have signed open letters to Sport Canada in recent weeks calling for independent investigations into the toxic culture in their sports.

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“One of my biggest worries as I take on this role is that we can’t get the results soon enough for the people who’ve been waiting for them,” she said. “Whether we started two weeks ago, whether we started next month or whether we started in a year from now, the sense of urgency is there for us, and we want to work on addressing all matters as urgently as we can.”

There’s also the need, however, not to stumble out of the gate.

Read more: ‘Very toxic environment’: Canadian gymnasts allege years of abuse, call for action

“Coming from an artistic sport, there’s always this notion of perfection,” Pelletier said. “We cannot compromise on building a trauma-informed system and as robust system as we can, that will be compassionate, and that will be efficient, and that will provide a fair process for all the parties involved.”

“I don’t know that we can create something perfect, but we really need to get it right.”

St-Onge said there were three main asks from athletes and sport organizations that arose from recent discussions. The first was that the safe sport office be independent. Athletes have usually had to take complaints to someone within their sport, “and they didn’t necessarily feel safe to do so,” St-Onge told The Canadian Press in an interview Tuesday evening.

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Pelletier said independence is “at the core” of the new safe sport office, and added they will largely rely on external expert resources for things like investigations to help safeguard independence. Policy creation, she said, was also informed by expertise outside of sports, such as human rights and child protection.

The second ask, St-Onge said, was for adequate funding, and she noted the $16 million earmarked in the recent federal budget to fund office operations over the next three years.

The third ask was for participation to be mandatory for all national sport organizations, and it will be a condition for federal funding. St-Onge said organizations that currently have their own safe sport mechanisms will shift over.

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Pelletier’s staff at OSIC currently consists of a director of investigations and a program manager who will help triage complaints, and it will expand as needed.

Read more: Canadian gymnasts call for probe into years of abuse: ‘We can no longer sit in silence’

She said her office will have a process to handle historical claims as well. Gymnasts, boxers, and bobsled and skeleton athletes, for example, asked for independent investigations, with some of their allegations of maltreatment being several years old.

Pelletier said there was some collaboration with the United States Center for SafeSport in helping lay the groundwork in the OSIC. But she’d like to raise the bar even higher.

“Hopefully our model is best in class and . . . can be inspired and inspire other models worldwide,” she said. “We want to advance this conversation, basically. We aspire to being a great example, on a worldwide basis.”

St-Onge said that while the OSIC is a “very important piece of the safe sport file,” it’s just part of the solution.

“It is also my goal and my priority to work on the culture in sport,” said St-Onge, who was appointed sport minister in October.

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She also plans a review of the funding agreement with national sport organizations, to improve governance and accountability, and “all the other aspects of safe sport, to make sure that we respond properly when we’re facing situations like those that were exposed in the past few months and weeks.”

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St-Onge also plans to work on the Canadian Sport Policy, which binds all sport organizations across Canada.

“Safe sport is definitely my priority for this new Sport Policy,” she said. It’s due for renewal in February of 2023.

St-Onge applauds the athletes for having the courage to come forward in recent weeks about their experiences of maltreatment.

“The positive thing that is coming out of these stories . . . is it put the conversation at the forefront of everybody’s priorities,” she said. “I feel like everyone understands now that what happened is unacceptable, that silence is unacceptable, that not doing anything is unacceptable. And that we need to do more.

“And, that’s also about the sustainability of our sport system. Because if Canadians don’t trust our sport system, parents are no longer going to send their kids to clubs and physical activity. And that’s really problematic.

“We’re ready to move forward and improve the Canadian sports system and my goal is to bring back joy in the sport practice.”

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