Water Sports

No jurisdiction, no money: Why Canada’s sports organizations say they can’t stop most abuse in sport

This story is part of a continuing investigation by CBC News and Sports into abuse in amateur sport in Canada.  Read all of the reporting here.

An increasing chorus within national sports organizations say they have neither the structure nor the resources to effectively implement safe sport systems within Canada’s amateur sports system.

Martin Goulet, the executive director of Water Polo Canada, says it’s unfair to hold NSOs accountable for cases of abuse and maltreatment that might take place at local clubs and associations.

“Most NSOs don’t have the capacity to do this. They won’t do a good job or they’re going to drain all their resources into this,” Goulet told CBC News. 

“And who is going to suffer? It’s going to be the athletes at the end of the day, because programs for athletes are already poorly funded.”

NSOs have safe sport jurisdiction over training camps linked to national programs. But outside of that, Goulet says, “I’m not going to take responsibility for things that I cannot control.

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“As a leader — and I’m speaking on behalf of all my colleagues — this is absolutely wrong to ask us to take responsibility for things that we don’t have any control over.”

A CBC investigation in 2019 revealed more than 200 coaches had been charged with sexually abusing athletes under their care since 1998. Since then, 83 others have been charged. 

NSOs, the 64 governing bodies for their respective sports, vary in size from Hockey Canada and its more than 500,000 participants to smaller organizations such as Tennis Table Canada and Fencing Canada. 

They receive varying amounts of federal funding. Some get only a few hundred thousand dollars per year, just a handful receive more than $5 million.

Water Polo Canada’s little more than $2 million mostly goes to developing and training high-performance national athletes. Goulet says there is little left over for meaningful safe sport programming and education to lower-level clubs. 

NSOs do what they can, he says, but “it’s nothing compared to what could be brought to the table if every single province will take the responsibility.” 

Children play soccer on a field.
The newly created Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner receives $16 million in federal funding, but has no jurisdiction over the grassroots level. (matimix/Shutterstock)

Safe sport, in his view, is a provincial problem. 

Many working at the provincial level say this is wishful thinking. The executive director of the Alberta Basketball Association says there is simply no money to implement the far-reaching, impactful safe sport program that many would like.

Paul Sir says Canada Basketball has “done a very good job” — with awareness and by sharing resources — helping provincial groups create safe sport environments. 

“But are we getting the financial support in order to implement these things? Absolutely not,” he said. 

Sir says that with five staff running all parts of his organization, efforts to make real change on a file like safe sport are “lip service.”

There’s a gap between what many NSOs wish they could do to strengthen safe sport at the local level and what is actually possible, says Julie Forget, a former communications director for Gymnastics Canada.

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“NSOs in this country are being asked to do so much with so little and they’re under-resourced across the board,” she said. 

Even though gymnastics is one of the biggest sports in Canada, her former organization, she says, could do very little “just because they don’t have the money.”

While local groups struggle, millions have been spent creating a national code of conduct and an office to investigate complaints from national team athletes.

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One of the current Liberal government’s major safe sport initiatives has been the creation of the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner (OSIC), an independent office to investigate athlete complaints, with which all federally funded sport organizations are required to participate.

But the office, which came at a price tag of $16 million, has no jurisdiction over the grassroots level, a concern that was highlighted in the consultations leading to its creation.

“Clubs are rarely required to be members of their respective NSOs, which leaves the vast majority of grassroots administrators without ready access to the necessary resources, expertise or capacity to create safe sport environments,” a report from the consultations said. 

“Several focus group participants noted that this leads to a disturbing scenario where the level that delivers far more organized sport than the provincial or national levels is actually the least equipped to create safe sport environments.” 

Children swim in a public pool.
The overwhelming majority of participation in sports in Canada happens at the grassroots level. (ANP/AFP/Getty Images)

Different levels of sport also need their own, tailor-made solutions. Keeping grown, national-level athletes safe is very different from protecting the children who play at the the grassroots level.

“We need a body that has actually been created for children alone, because children are different from adults and they need to solely be putting the child at the centre,” said Noni Classen, director of education at the Canadian Centre for Child Protection in Winnipeg.

The centre has been working closely with the federal government, pushing for funding and programs better designed to educate and mitigate sexual abuse at the grassroots level.

Even though many NSOs say the safe sport file would be better handled by someone else, Goulet says they have still been under tremendous pressure to update and strengthen their safe sport programs. 

Each of the NSOs had to reinvent the wheel in not only the way we process and look into complaints, but also the education piece.— Martin Goulet, CEO of Water Polo Canada, on implementing new safe sport requirements

The process has not been efficient, he says.

“Each of the NSOs had to reinvent the wheel in not only the way we process and look into complaints, but also the education piece,” he said. 

“This is ridiculous. You have 64 different training programs to train people to deal with safe sport. I mean, this just doesn’t make any sense.”

Some who have been involved at the highest levels of Canadian sport say recent efforts may lead to the perception that NSOs are working effectively to make sport safer at all levels.

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Forget says NSOs like Gymnastics Canada are “held up in the media” when something bad happens at a local club. 

“You don’t hear about Alberta Gymnastics or B.C. Gymnastics, but they are actually the ones that have jurisdiction over the clubs.

NSOs only have jurisdiction over national team athletes and coaches, which is where, she says, “it gets tricky.”

For years, many NSOs insisted that they could effectively push safe sport policy down through provincial sport organizations to thousands of participants at the local clubs. 

A man poses for a picture
Paul Sir, executive director of the Alberta Basketball Association, says his organization doesn’t get the necessary funding to implement safe sport practices. (Alberta Basketball Association)

Swimming Canada, one of the country’s largest NSOs, still believes it can provide education and guidance — but acknowledges even its reach, and the capacity of the PSOs, is limited. 

“In smaller provinces in some cases it may be one person, maybe two, they don’t have a lot of staff and yet they have different tasks from their provincial mandates,” said Suzanne Paulins, the group’s director of operations and sport development.

“We try to support, We say ‘OK, here are templates, here are tools that you can then take,'” she said. 

But down at the local club level, the staffing “is primarily coaches and not administrators,” with few people on hand to help with safe sport. 

All of this has led many to say it’s time to change how safe sport is funded and who is tasked with actually changing things.

“I think you’ve got to flip, literally flip the model on its head, put power into the community,” said Marco Di Buono, president of Canadian Tire Jumpstart Charities, one the largest youth sports charities in Canada. 

NSOs should deal with fielding national teams, not safe sport, he says. 

“We keep standing on our soapbox, telling everyone to pay attention to community and grassroots, and the conversation keeps happening about the national-level athletes… but we’re missing 99 per cent of the participation pool.”

Editor’s Note: CBC Sports acknowledges that it has ongoing contractual agreements to produce, broadcast and stream various events with several national sport organizations.

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