Calls for more oversight to protect children in sport – CBC.ca

Athletes and experts are renewing calls for more oversight in sport following a string of historical abuse allegations that have surfaced in recent months against coaches across disciplines and jurisdictions. 

mary jane richards

Mary Jane Richards decided to report allegations against her former running coach in 2019. (Julie Ireton/CBC)

Athletes and experts are renewing calls for more oversight in sport following a string of historical abuse allegations that have surfaced in recent months against coaches across disciplines and jurisdictions. 

Gretchen Kerr, a professor at University of Toronto who specializes in the maltreatment of athletes, said she’s concerned about how few people come forward with allegations.

“Whatever numbers we have are an underestimation, because so many people have not come forward,” said Kerr. “In a recent study of Canadian national team athletes, less than 15 per cent of athletes said that they had reported their form of maltreatment.”

In many cases athletes don’t know where to turn for help.

In 2019, after remaining silent for decades, Mary Jane Richards reported allegations of grooming against her former running coach, Peter Des Brisay, but she had a hard time navigating the system.

Des Brisay was her coach and high school teacher, but they also trained together at the Ottawa Lions Track and Field Club, competing under the banner of Athletics Canada.

In the end, Richards decided to report him to the Ontario College of Teachers. That complaint process has been ongoing for almost two years. 

mary jane richards

Mary Jane Richards competed nationally and internationally for Canada in the 1990s, winning three, Canadian cross-country championships. (Submitted/George Aitkin)

Need for independent body

“It’s a really bureaucratic, drawn-out process. There’s not a lot of energy around it,” said Richards.

She also informed the Ottawa Lions Track and Field Club where Des Brisay continued to coach. It “removed him from the club,” but deferred any decisions about sanctions until the college process is completed, according to former track club president, Nathalie Côté.

Richards said Athletics Canada was unable to help her in 2019, although she received a call from the organization after CBC published her story on Monday. 

What’s needed, said Kerr, is an independent judicial organization for athletes.

“Athletes need not only a person who’s independent from the sport organization to report their concerns, but we need independent investigators, independent adjudicators,” said Kerr. 

She adds that any recommendations or sanctions out of an independent review can’t be left in the hands of the sports organization where conflict of interest may occur.

The federal government had announced plans for a third-party investigative unit dedicated to sport in March 2019, but few details have emerged since.

In an email to CBC, Sports Canada says it’s taken steps and made investments to address harassment, abuse and discrimination in sport, but “we know that more needs to be done” and “an announcement is expected soon.”

A timeline was requested, but not given. 

lorraine lafreniere

Lorraine Lafrenière, chief executive officer of the Coaching Association of Canada, says part of the work is addressing the power imbalance between coaches and athletes. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC)

Code of conduct not enough

As a condition of federal funding, national sports organizations must adhere to a new universal code of conduct. 

But Lorraine Lafrenière, CEO of the Coaching Association of Canada, worries new national rules don’t necessarily trickle down to local, private clubs. 

“Part of the challenge we have in sport is from sport to sport or from club to club. The codes of conduct can be different, and that’s still a problem,” she said.  

Education and training of coaches on proper boundaries is an ongoing process, says Lafrenière.

“It’s a constant retraining and educating that’s needed to make sure that the vigilance is in place,” she said. “It’s a journey. And so there’s still a ton more needed.” 

Unlike the United States, Canada doesn’t have a national registry with the names of sanctioned coaches.

“In utopia, yes, we would have that because it would allow coaches not to change sports or change clubs or change provinces and then go ahead and, quite frankly, violate the professional standards again,” said Lafrenière.