In hopes of eliminating harassment in national sports, the Canadian government announced yesterday morning a host of new guidelines for sports teams, including some initiatives championed by former ski racers who were adolescent athletes for Alpine Canada, the country's national ski racing program, when they were abused by their coach.
Earlier this month, Amélie-Frédérique Gagnon, Gail Kelly, Anna Prchal, and Geneviève Simard stood before a crowd of reporters in Montreal and described the nightmarish abuse their ski coach had inflicted on them in the 1990s. It had been one year since Bertrand Charest, ex-Alpine Canada coach, was found guilty of 37 of 57 charges, including sexual exploitation and sexual assault, brought against him by 12 victims. He's now serving a 12-year prison term.
It was painful to relieve the memories so publicly, these survivors said, but they were determined that their stories would motivate their government to take action. Canada's sport programs are publicly funded at the provincial, territorial, and national levels, unlike in the United States, where government does not finance the United States Olympic Council (USOC) or its national governing bodies like the United States Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA), which operates as a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation, supported by philanthropy and sponsorships.
Adaptation of the new policies announced by Minister of Sport and Persons of Disabilities Kristy Duncan in a June 19 press release is required for continued federal funding eligibility. The new requirements impact only athletes competing on the international stage, for Canada’s national teams. Eight days after the survivors’ press conference, Quebec's legislature passed a motion that added the implementation of an accredited safety program to the criteria for program funding eligibility. This applies to non-professional athletes competing in the province.
The new policies announced by Minister Duncan require that national team athletes, coaches, professional support personnel, and senior management in all sports programs complete training on rights, responsibilities, obligations, and awareness as it pertains to all forms of harassment, abuse, and grooming. Duncan has challenged sports organizations to establish mandatory training "as soon as possible," and gave an April 2020 deadline for compliance.
Suggested policy changes by survivors, as well as groups like the Canadian Centre for Child Protection and the Coaching Association of Canada, include formalized systems for reporting inappropriate behavior and potential abuse; the adaption of a Universal Duty of Care Code; and a "rule of two," which ensures young athletes are never alone with any authority figures for extended periods of time. Duncan's announcement doesn't provide details related to these specific recommendations. However, she does require that federally funded sport organizations immediately disclose any incidents of harassment, abuse, or discrimination going forward.
Advocates and survivors have also petitioned for the appointment of safety officers in each province and territory, who would operate independently of sports organizations to investigate reports of abuse. Duncan's announcement noted that organizations should work within existing governance frameworks to accomplish this.
"We don't need to reinvent the wheel. I think the crux of [fixing] the issue is the independence [of compliance officers]," Lorraine Lafrenière, CEO of Coaching Association of Canada, told POWDER. "What is watched gets changed."
In the United States, lawsuits against USA Swimming involving reports of sexual misconduct by coaches led to the opening in early 2017 of the U.S. Center for SafeSport, a nonprofit that independently investigates sex-abuse claims filed by athletes. The USOC contributed more than $10 million to the founding of the center, and required all national governing bodies, like USSA, to implement additional athlete safety policies including coach training. During its first year of operation, SafeSport received 540 reports from 38 of the country's 49 national governing bodies, according to a representative. Today, the total number of reports to the center exceeds 1,000. The center has issued more than 169 sanctions and ruled more than 142 individuals permanently ineligible to participate in U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Movements.
"The significance of the power of the coach cannot be underestimated," wrote researcher Celia Brackenridge, a pioneering authority on sexual abuse in sports. She passed away this year, but her seminal late-1990s study titled "He Owned Me Basically," named for how one athlete described her experience with an abusive coach, still offers relevant lessons. As Brackenridge writes, the power of a coach "can be likened to that of the priest who is also vested with authority (of God) and whose absolute knowledge is not questioned or challenged."
Brackenridge also discusses how coaches secure their own protection by making their ability to "produce winning results" seem indispensable, thereby maintaining a "powerful grip" over employers.
Alpine Canada acknowledged earlier this month in a statement that "the organization could have offered more support to the victims," when athletes first reported Charest's abusive behavior in 1998. Prchal, one of the survivors, explained that while the abuse brought its own daily trauma, shame, and humiliation, she also "felt abandoned by the very people who were supposed to be taking care of me. Worse of all, they made me feel like I had done something wrong."
As JD Miller, CEO of the influential Canadian athlete advocacy group B2ten, which has petitioned the government for change and supported these survivors, told POWDER, regardless of new policies and procedures enacted, success will be measured as "coaches are increasingly aware of and understand the great responsibility of the power they have over athletes. [That power] can be for good. It also has the ability to maim them for life."
At the early June press conference, Gagnon, a survivor who testified against her ski coach, recounted how she has spent "the last 26 years working extremely hard to forget a time that really should have been filled with dreams and personal growth both socially and professionally. The only way I can justify to relive my abusive past is to provide a platform for others that will give them additional protections and safeguards."
Later, she spoke passionately to reporters about the next generation of athletes, including her own children, who are at the same age she was when the abuse began. "I want them to be able to experience the joy of this sport and not live what I went through," she said.
"We are getting back on our feet," Simard affirmed. "It will take time to find the joy that we lost, but for the first time, I believe we will be able to do it."
The Canadian government's actions are a huge step in the right direction, but the work to ensure compliance, and to shift cultural norms, will continue. Advocates like Miller and Lafrenière expect that June 19’s announcement will prompt other provincial and territorial administrations to fall into step, and pass motions like Quebec’s.
"Safety is not an endpoint, it's a journey," Lafrenière told POWDER. "This is not something we're going to focus on for a month, and then forget about. This is something that has to be at the forefront of every organization's culture. The system should be challenged to take the leadership role."