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HomeBusinessCanadian athletes became safe sport activists in 2022

Canadian athletes became safe sport activists in 2022

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Bob Mackin 

Canadians regained women’s Olympic hockey gold, returned to soccer’s men’s World Cup after a 36-year absence and hoisted the Davis Cup world tennis championship for the first time. 

But 2022 was also a year of history off the field of play, as Canadian summer and winter athletes and their supporters united to target abuse, neglect and corruption in their sports.

How did we get here?

Rob Koehler of Global Athlete (GlobalAthlete.org)

Rob Koehler, director general of Global Athlete, blamed the win-at-all-costs mentality of Own the Podium, the high performance legacy of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics. Koehler said a public inquiry is needed, like the one in 1989 after the Ben Johnson doping scandal.

“There’s an opportunity here for Canada to lead the way in understanding safe sport, and understanding how to create a better safe sport,” Koehler said. “You cannot do that until you learn from the past, to develop the future.”

Key dates in a year of controversy.

Jan. 19 

Athletics Canada CEO Dave Bedford retired suddenly over complaints about sexually charged Tweets.

Feb. 8 

Bob Birarda, the former coach of the Vancouver Whitecaps women’s team and national under-20 women’s team, pleaded guilty to three counts of sexual assault and one count of touching a young person for sexual purpose. Birarda appeared via web link to North Vancouver Provincial Court from his lawyer’s office for crimes that occurred between 1988 and 2008. 

March 14

Dozens of current and former Canadian sliders called for the immediate resignation of Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton president/acting CEO Sarah Storey and high performance director Chris Le Bihan. Their long list of grievances included a toxic culture, lack of care for athlete safety and poor transparency and governance.

March 22

In the wake of two 2021 Rugby Canada coaching controversies and disappointments at the Tokyo Olympics, Calgary-based STRAAD Consulting’s high performance review said current and former players confessed they were not proud to wear the national team jersey.

“Either through acts of ‘omission or commission’ the leadership of the organization – board, executive, operations, and coaches – have not effectively managed the short-term and long-term needs of the high-performance program,” said the board-ordered report. 

April 20 

Bob Birarda in 2005 (CSA)

A woman filed a $3.55 million lawsuit in Ontario Superior Court against Hockey Canada, alleging eight national junior team players sexually assaulted her in a London, Ont., hotel on June 19, 2018. The case was settled out of court the next month. Sport Canada froze Hockey Canada’s funding. 

April 29 

Four former players filed a $5.5 million lawsuit against Water Polo Canada, alleging physical, psychological and emotional abuse, sexual harassment and mental suffering between 2004 and 2016. In October, after the papers were served, the board ordered an independent investigation and suspended coach Pat Oaten. 

May 4

More than 100 current and former Canadian boxers demanded the resignation of Boxing Canada’s high performance director Daniel Trepanier, over allegations of physical and psychological abuse and neglect. They got their wish four days later. 

May 11

Former elite gymnast Amelia Cline launched a class action lawsuit in B.C. against Gymnastics Canada and six of its provincial affiliates, on behalf of all gymnasts since 1978 who allegedly suffered sexual, physical and/or psychologically abuse. 

May 26

Relatives of the Canadians killed in the Iranian military’s 2020 missile attack on Ukraine Airlines flight 752 successfully pressured the Canadian Soccer Association to cancel a June 5 World Cup warmup match against Iran at B.C. Place Stadium. The friendly against replacement Panama was cancelled when Canada’s Qatar-qualified players went on strike for a new contract. 

June 12

New Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton president Tara McNeil (BCS/Twitter)

At the Canadian Olympic Committee’s annual meeting in Montreal, federal sport minister Pascal St-Onge set an April 1, 2023 deadline for federally funded national sport organizations to fall under jurisdiction of the new Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner, the April-appointed Sarah-Eve Pelletier. She also announced a new Sport Canada athlete advisory committee. 

July 27

Hockey Canada executives testified to a House of Commons committee that $8.9 million was paid in 21 sexual abuse settlements since 1989. Some of the funds came from amateur player registration fees. 

Oct. 11

After months of controversy, including sponsors pausing or ending their payments, Hockey Canada CEO Scott Smith and the board of directors resigned. A new five-woman, four-man board, chaired by retired judge Hugh Fraser, was elected Dec. 17. 

Nov. 2

A North Vancouver Provincial Court judge sentenced Birarda to almost 16 months in jail, four months house arrest, four months under 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew and three years probation.

Nov. 5 

Ciara McCormack (Twitter)

The Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton annual general meeting that began Sept. 29 in Calgary resumed at the Whistler Sliding Centre. Storey dropped a bombshell: she would not seek a third term as president. Her successor was sport physiologist Tara McNeil. 

Dec. 1

Ciara McCormack, the former player who blew the whistle in 2019 on Birarda’s return to coaching, added her voice to the campaign for a judicial public inquiry into Canada’s sport system. 

At a House of Commons status of women committee hearing, McCormack also called for an investigation into the Canadian Soccer Association for covering up Birarda’s misconduct in 2008.

“There’s a lot of taxpayer money going into FIFA 2026 and there was so much harm done in our situation that hasn’t been remedied in any capacity,” McCormack testified.

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