A Liberal MP and former sport minister is again calling for a public inquiry into abuse in sport — and is accusing her own government of not doing enough to tackle the problem.
Kirsty Duncan said the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau failed to build momentum behind her efforts to prevent harassment, abuse and discrimination in sport in the years after she left cabinet — despite knowing a lot about the problem well before Hockey Canada’s handling of sexual assault allegations exploded in the news last year.
Duncan said she even faced “pushback” from people within her own government when she made tackling abuse a top priority of her time as sport minister.
Duncan said she would not identify the individuals who resisted her efforts, or state whether they were in her own office or other government departments.
“It should not be a fight. I’m asking for the protection of athletes and children. There should never have been pushback,” Duncan told CBC News in an exclusive interview.
“I will not stand idly by while there are athletes, children and young people hurting in this country. And I do not accept the status quo. And if I do not push for an inquiry, it means accepting the status quo. And I will not be complicit.”
On Thursday, Duncan announced she’s taking medical leave effective immediately on the advice of doctors to deal with a physical health challenge.
Duncan was not re-appointed to cabinet by Trudeau after the 2019 election. She was instead appointed deputy House leader for the government.
Trudeau dropped the position of sport minister from cabinet at the time and folded Duncan’s responsibilities into the portfolio of the heritage minister, Steven Guilbeault.
Guilbeault’s ministerial mandate letter — which outlined his key policy objectives — charged him with fostering a culture of safe sport.
In response to questions from CBC about the progress Guilbeault made on that mandate, his office pointed to a Sport Canada timeline of safe sport initiatives in the country.
The department launched a call for proposals to implement a new independent safe sport mechanism in 2020. In July 2021, Guilbeault announced that the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada (SDRCC) would receive up to $2.1 million to set up a new mechanism to oversee implementation of a new universal code of conduct in sport.
A senior government source with knowledge of Guilbeault’s portfolio concedes “other priorities required more attention” when he was heritage minister. Guilbeault’s legislative priorities at the time including confronting online abuse, digital streaming regulation and copyright reform.
The source, who spoke to CBC News on the condition of confidentiality, said the department’s priorities shifted when the pandemic hit in March 2020, just four months after Guilbeault was appointed minister. The source said they “totally understand” Duncan’s claim that more could have been done on safe sport.
“Since 2016, our government has worked with the sport community to advance a respectful sport culture and respond to calls for action,” Guilbeault’s office wrote in an email to CBC News.
Duncan said she felt her safe sport initiatives were not given the attention they deserved after she left the office.
“There was nothing in place. There was literally nothing. There didn’t even seem to be policies. Some had policies, some didn’t,” she said. “Where was the oversight? Where was the accountability?
“I think what we’ve seen over the last four years, and we’ve certainly seen this summer, is that there remains a hugely disappointing resistance to change.”
Current Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge was asked about Duncan’s claim that the government isn’t doing enough to protect athletes in the country.
“I can tell you that we’re taking it extremely seriously,” she told CBC News.
“That’s why we’ve invested $16 million in the last budget just to create the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner, because we felt it was so important to have that independent mechanism. I’m also making it mandatory for all nationally funded organizations to sign up with those before the next funding cycle.
“So any organization that hasn’t protected their athletes by signing up with OSIC will no longer receive the whole funding. That’s the strongest tool that I have. So yes, we are taking this extremely, extremely seriously.”
Just weeks after Duncan was named sport minister in January 2018, an investigation by CBC News revealed that at least 222 coaches involved in amateur sports over 20 years had been convicted of sex offences involving over 600 victims under age 18.
Duncan — a former gymnast who said she experienced emotional and psychological abuse herself as an athlete — said she was shaken by that report.
She introduced a number of measures — “broad strokes,” she calls them now — such as a third-party investigation unit and a national toll-free confidential helpline for victims and witnesses of abuse in sport. She also brought territorial and provincial sport ministers together in February 2019 to sign a declaration aimed at tackling and preventing harassment, abuse and discrimination in sport.
“I knew I had to address the grassroots. That’s where most athletes will spend their life,” Duncan said.
“Safe sport needs to be on every federal, provincial, territorial meeting year after year after year, with real goals and deliverables. I talked a lot about numbers. How can we address a problem if we don’t know what that problem looks like?”
Reluctance in government
In the 2019 federal budget, the government committed $30 million over five years “to enable Canadian sports organizations to promote accessible, ethical, equitable and safe sports.”
But Duncan says there was a climate of resistance to policies she was introducing, both within and outside the government.
“I don’t think people understood the problem. There wasn’t a lot of interest in Parliament. I asked what we were doing and I was told that we had to stop this safe sport stuff and get back to what sport was really about,” she said, referring to celebrating sporting achievements.
“My answer was, ‘So not protecting children?'”
CBC News reached out to the Prime Minister’s Office but they declined to comment.
Duncan said a three-page letter sent by Hockey Canada to one of her senior policy advisers reflects the tone of the opposition she faced.
The letter, first reported by the Canadian Press, was written by Glen McCurdie, then Hockey Canada’s vice-president of insurance and risk management. In it, McCurdie expressed concern about some of the policies Duncan was pursuing, including the third-party investigation unit.
Duncan said she never saw the letter four years ago and only read it for the first time this past summer, when the Hockey Canada controversy was playing out.
“Hockey Canada does not wish to be encumbered by a system or process that ties our hands and does not allow us to manage a situation as we deem necessary. We are simply asking that you keep this in mind as you continue to lead us in a collective Safe Sport strategy,” McCurdie wrote in the letter, which was also obtained by CBC News.
Duncan said she was frustrated in 2019 by Hockey Canada’s reluctance and remains just as frustrated today.
“Hockey Canada pushed back against a third party investigator and a safe sport helpline. Who would do that?” she said. “Who wouldn’t want a child to be able to pick up a phone and say, ‘I’ve had a problem’?
“I think people want to sweep this under the rug. I think people want to move on. And we can’t.”
In an email to CBC, Hockey Canada said the 2019 letter does not reflect the organization’s current thinking or direction.
“Hockey Canada recognizes that we need to do more to foster a safe and positive environment for all participants on and off the ice,” the organization wrote.
Hockey Canada said the organization participated in the government’s safe sport helpline and hired third-party investigators to look into the claims it received. Hockey Canada became a full signatory in October 2022 to the Office of the Sport Integrity Commission, which is now responsible for overseeing and investigating allegations of abuse in sport.