Alumni of Canada’s under-20 Women’s World Cup soccer team say they were shocked to learn that their former coach had returned to the sidelines for a youth team in South Surrey/White Rock.
“We all look back at our experience with Canada Soccer and the Vancouver Whitecaps and think the situation should have been handled differently,” reads a statement published online April 1. “During our time as part of the U20’s, we each witnessed incidents of abuse, manipulation, or inappropriate behaviour toward players.”
B.C. Soccer Association called a third-party investigation after former player Ciara McCormack went public on her blog in late February, alleging the CSA and Whitecaps did not conduct a full investigation more than a decade ago and that her confidentiality was breached when she complained about harassment and bullying.
The new statement does not list the players’ names, but a copy of it was sent to theBreaker.news by the group’s spokeswoman Eden Hingwing, who left the national team before the Under-20 Women’s World Cup, because she said she witnessed a toxic environment.
The statement refers to the Oct. 9, 2008 announcement by the Whitecaps and CSA that they had mutually agreed to part ways with coach Bob Birarda. The timing was suspect, because the national team was preparing for the Nov. 19, 2008 kickoff of the Under-20 Women’s World Cup in Chile. The club and the national association’s news releases both used the same line, that Birarda’s departure was “in the best interest of both parties.”
Birarda had coached the W-League Whitecaps for three seasons, including the 2006 championship. By virtue of his U-20 position, he was also an assistant coach of Canada’s Olympic team for Beijing 2008.
The players, some of whom were minors at the time, say they were never informed why Birarda departed, nor were their parents, and, if an investigation took place, they were not interviewed.
“No third-party organization, nor the authorities, stepped in to provide an outlet for these conversations,” the statement reads. “There was never any follow-up to ensure the health and safety of the athletes on our team.”
Birarda has not commented. CSA general secretary Peter Montopoli did not respond.
The Whitecaps issued a quote-less statement late April 1 that said there is “no higher priority” than the safety and well-being of its personnel, who can access an independent ombudsperson on an anonymous basis. “We are concerned there may be new information related to this matter that did not come forward in 2008 or since.”
The Whitecaps say they contacted the Vancouver Police Department about the new allegations. Sgt. Jason Robillard confirmed that the VPD “has been made aware of the blog,” but did not confirm whether it learned of it first from the Whitecaps. “We have no further information to provide,” Robillard said by email.
The Whitecaps’ W-League home games were in Burnaby’s Swangard Stadium, an RCMP jurisdiction, but the players lived in a Vancouver apartment building owned by team owner Greg Kerfoot.
Diane Voice, who was the team’s manager, told theBreaker.news that she reported her concerns to the front office.
“[Players] felt they weren’t listened to and, in fact, many of them weren’t heard or listened to,” Voice said in an interview. “The Whitecaps are saying that they knew nothing prior to that time or until they heard this. They did know.”
“When they gave him an apartment in the same building as the players, I said ‘oh no, you can’t do that, that is not right. It is too close’,” Voice said. “They said so many organizations do it.”
Voice said the players were reluctant to confide in her at the time because she was perceived as Birarda’s assistant.
“They didn’t know that my being there was for the team. I was the team manager, not Bob’s manager,” she said.
Voice said a player did show her concerning text messages from Birarda. She said the club “guaranteed they were going to protect her and she would not be blackballed from soccer. My understanding now is she never played soccer again.”
The Whitecaps and CSA hired lawyer Anne Chopra in 2008, but she told theBreaker.news that she was bound by confidentiality from discussing her findings which led to Birarda’s departure.
When Chopra began her work, Voice said she was told the situation was under control, but she was never interviewed.
After McCormack went public, Coastal FC suspended under-17 team coach Birarda pending a review that remains ongoing. The organization has not disclosed who is conducting the review or what the terms of reference are for the review.
Coastal FC’s March 10 statement said the association conducted criminal a standard record background check, reference check, interview and vetting at the committee and board level prior to Birarda’s appointment. The association admitted that it was “aware of a single, unsubstantiated rumour regarding alleged conduct concerning an adult player… at no time were we aware of allegations of inappropriate behaviour with minors. Nor are we aware of any such allegations during his time at Coastal FC.”
The players’ statement says they believe, based on former Whitecaps and senior national team captain Andrea Neil’s late March statement, that the CSA and Vancouver Whitecaps were aware of the misconduct allegations.
The former players want the CSA and Whitecaps to implement best practices policies, like Hockey Canada’s, withdraw coaching licences for inappropriate or abusive behaviour, and to address what happened in 2008.
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