Government falls short on pledge to better protect kids against abuse in sport
Six months since a CBC investigation revealed widespread problems of sexual offences by coaches in amateur sports in Canada, signs of the promises made by the federal government to deal with it are hard to find.
The investigation revealed that at least 222 coaches across the country had been convicted of a sexual offence from 1998-2018 involving more than 600 victims under the age of 18.
One of the centrepieces of the promises made in March by federal Minister of Science and Sport Kirsty Duncan was the launch of a toll-free number and website that kids or parents could contact to report or seek advice about potential abuse.
CBC News checked the websites of nearly 50 of Canada’s largest sports organizations and found only 27 of them mention the helpline. On some sites it was prominently displayed, but in many cases it was difficult to find. Some sites have simply published a reference to the initial government announcement.
Those that had no mention of the helpline at all include organizations representing some of Canada’s largest participatory sports, like hockey, soccer, figure skating, gymnastics and basketball.
“We’ve done what we can,” Duncan told CBC News when asked why the helpline hasn’t received the prominence that was promised. “There’s more to be done to raise the profile,” she said.
“I am responsible for the national sport organizations. In order to work down to the club level I have to work with my sport ministerial colleagues across the country. That’s what I have done.”
In a follow up email from Duncan’s office, her press secretary wrote, “Sport Canada has reached out on a number of occasions to all of the sport organizations we fund, and will continue to work with them to raise awareness of the helpline in the coming months.”
60 calls to helpline
CBC also reached out to dozens of local sports organizations across the country. None of the people who answered on behalf of the clubs said they had heard of the helpline or been given any new direction about how to deal with concerns about abuse.
Jesse Harrison is part of the Leaside Baseball Association, a midtown Toronto club where nearly a thousand children play baseball. Harrison first spoke to CBC News in February about what he saw as the lack of communication from larger sports organizations about how to handle concerns about abuse. In spite of the pledge from sports ministers at the provincial and federal level to do more, he says he’s heard nothing from Baseball Ontario or Baseball Canada.
“We haven’t seen any of those ideas or guidelines come to us directly,” he says. “And, really, the conversation has stalled. So it’s difficult to pursue in a more meaningful way if we’re not getting anything in return.”
The Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada (SDRCC), the agency that runs the helpline, says it has not distributed any promotional posters to date but has a social media campaign planned for the fall. The SDRCC says 60 people have contacted the helpline since it was established.
Sandra Kirby, a former Olympic rower and University of Winnipeg professor who has done extensive research on the problem of abuse in sports, says the solutions that have been proposed are simply “missing the boat.”
Kirby says the helpline is “only as good as your ability to get out into the hearts and minds of the athletes in sport.”
“We have all of this information out there — nobody in sport could say that they don’t understand this is an issue — and yet sport organizations themselves seem moribund to do anything,” Kirby said, “partly out of fear and partly out of they just simply hope it’s going to go away or it’s going to be in somebody else’s sport and not theirs.”
‘Off the radar’
Only days after CBC News published its initial investigation in February, provincial and territorial ministers responsible for sport, physical activity and recreation stood with Duncan at a meeting in Red Deer, Alta., and signed a declaration promising to make safe sport a priority.
CBC reached out to those same ministries to ask what steps they’ve taken, and found approaches differ from province to province. Most said they are still working on developing additional safe-sport policies.
In the meantime, 22 more coaches in Canada have been charged with sexually abusing a minor since the CBC News investigation. Those cases involve 12 different sports.
Duncan defended the federal government’s response, pointing to jurisdictional issues that prevent her from forcing changes at the provincial and local level.
“There is always work to be done,” she said. “I started a conversation in this country that had never happened 18 months ago — and you can imagine the pushback. People didn’t want to talk about this.”
Kirby says the commitment to forcing change, from the club level to elite sport, needs to be stronger.
“How the provinces do it and how the clubs do it has not been addressed in any way,” Kirby says. “What we need is partnership from the provinces to step up and help with the local and the provincial level. But the national promise has not been realized.”
Harrison and others hope the momentum for real change hasn’t been lost.
“I feel like it’s a relatively easy thing to begin to address and start those conversations. But it’s definitely fallen off the radar, off the topic list, for sure.”