Staying ahead of the game: A year-end review of the Abuse-Free Sport program

6 minute read
14 November 2023


On June 20, 2022, the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada ("SDRCC") launched Abuse-Free Sport (the "Program"). The Program aimed to prevent and address maltreatment in sport and encourage safe sport practices in the Canadian sport system.

As part of the Program, the SDRCC established the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner ("OSIC"), with a view to provide a reliable way for athletes to report abuse and maltreatment. The OSIC administers and investigates complaints with respect to violations of the Universal Code of Conduct to Prevent and Address Maltreatment in Sport (the "Code") and ensures the Code's implementation for federally-funded sport organizations that have adopted the Code and have retained the services of the SDRCC for the implementation of their safe sport framework (each, a "Signatory").

Led by Canada's sport integrity commissioner, Sarah-Ève Pelletier, the OSIC has recently delivered its Year One Report – June 2022 to June 2023. In light of this development, we take this opportunity to review the newly created OSIC's first operational year and Canada's overall efforts to address maltreatment in sport.

Encouraging national sport organizations

From June 2022 to June 2023, 86 sport organizations became Signatories to the Abuse-Free Sport Program for the implementation of their safe sport framework. Nonetheless, the process to encourage sport organizations to join the safe sport initiative required many interventions from the federal government.

In an effort to encourage National Sport Organizations ("NSOs") to join the Program, former Minister of Sport, the Honourable Pascale St-Onge, established a deadline of April 1, 2023 as the date where all NSOs needed to be a Program Signatory to receive funding from the Government of Canada. This deadline ensured that more than 10,000 athletes were covered by the OSIC. Notwithstanding several interventions, a myriad of complaints remain inadmissible as a result of jurisdictional concerns.

Jurisdictional issues

In its first year, the OSIC received a total of 193 complaints, of which 118 were dismissed outright for jurisdictional reasons.

The OSIC must have jurisdiction over a matter in order for a complaint to be deemed admissible. The OSIC has jurisdiction if:

  • The matter relates to the Code. Specifically, the OSIC oversees matters relating to allegations of maltreatment and discrimination. It does not address other forms of misconduct, including illegal sports betting, conflicts of interest and others;
  • The sport organization listed is a Signatory to the Program;
  • The Complaint is formulated against an individual subject to the Code (a "Participant") who is under the authority of an OSIC Program Signatory. In fact, certain Signatories may only have authority regarding Participants at the national level, whereas others may also have authority over Participants involved at the provincial/territorial, club or other levels;
  • The remedy sought is under the authority of the OSIC. The OSIC does not have the authority reserved to administrative, civil and/or criminal courts and it cannot grant other forms of remedy (e.g. grant financial compensation, make a team selection decision, court order, etc.). Rather, the OSIC administers the Code and recommends the imposition of Sanctions (as defined under the Code). These Sanctions are subsequently transferred to the Director of Sanctions and Outcomes who is the authority responsible for the imposition of Sanctions. If a prohibited behaviour is confirmed, one or more of the following Sanctions may be imposed: verbal or written warning, probation, suspension, eligibility restrictions, permanent ineligibility and more.

The OSIC's jurisdiction over matters remains an issue. At present, most of the Program Signatories are NSOs. Volleyball Canada represents the only national, provincial/territorial and club Signatory.

The Year One Report provides that the OSIC has jurisdiction over approximately 17,000 full-time national-level Participants, with an additional 60,000 covered during national championships, as well as 70,000 covered full-time on a provincial/territorial and club level through Volleyball Canada. On that basis, a large portion of resources and funding to prevent abuse in sports is directed towards NSOs who fulfill the primary role of serving elite athletes competing at the national and international level. These resources will come into reach for more athletes when provincial/territorial level clubs become Signatories.

The future of Canada's safe sport practices and framework

Minister St-Onge has stated that protecting athletes participating at all levels of Canadian sport can only be achieved if the provinces are fully on board. St-Onge has encouraged the provinces to either join OSIC or create their own complaint mechanism.

Nova Scotia is currently the lone province to have signed on to OSIC. Quebec and New Brunswick have created their own complaint mechanisms while Manitoba and Saskatchewan have proceeded to establish their own safe sport helplines. The Chief Executive Officer of the SDRCC, Marie-Claude Asselin, has confirmed that she is in discussions with other provinces and territories on the issue.

Further work is required to ensure the safety of Canada's national, provincial/territorial and local athletes. As potential next steps, sports organizations, public officials and stakeholders have identified various action items, including increasing funding for the community-level sport, encouraging provincial and local organizations to become Signatories to complaint mechanism programs and addressing overarching jurisdictional issues. The objective remains to provide a voice to all silenced athletes in the midst of Canada's current safe sport crisis. It remains to be seen whether the upcoming 2023-2024 year will prove to be another step in the right direction.

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