Kristin Raworth: Why won't the Liberals give survivors what they are asking for?
A recent CBC investigation determined that in the last four years, 83 coaches have been charged or convicted of a sexual offence against an athlete in their care across multiple sports.
By: Kristin Raworth
Last month at The Line, I wrote about the plight of 640 survivors of sexual misconduct in the military potentially being denied compensation as part of a settlement because they had submitted their paperwork after the deadline. The Department of Defence was fighting a court decision ordering that these 640 people be included.
“This government continues to prove that sexual violence is only an issue worth fixing when it is convenient,” I wrote then, “and something that’s useful when talked about before an election, and then safely ignored until next time.”
A week ago today, the Department of Defence reversed course and is now including those 640 people in the settlement. Let's put that in the win column. But let’s also not slow down. There’s so much more that needs to be done, and luckily, there’s a very obvious next step the government can take. They just need to choose to proceed.
When I write or talk about the fundamental institutional issues around sexual violence, especially when that involves taking a shot at the current federal or provincial governments, there is a tendency for partisans to point to victories like this one as a sign that things are improving, that you shouldn’t criticize the government because, hey, look at the good thing they did. (Or, in this case, look at the bad thing they stopped doing.)
However, last Monday also featured the return of MPs to Parliament and with it the resuming of the Status of Women hearings on abuse in sport, and again the Liberal government's failure to listen to survivors of abuse was on full display.
As I have written about here before, these hearings are meant to determine what actions need to be taken to address abuse in sport in a systemic way. Multiple organizations including Gymnasts for Change and Figure Skating for Change are lobbying the government for a full judicial inquiry into abuse in sport. You only need to listen to the testimony on Monday of the CEO of Gymnastics Canada, Ian Moss, to understand why there is a need for a reckoning in sports organizations. When defending their handling of a case involving well-known gymnastic coach Alex Bard, who was ultimately fired, Moss said “allegations are not facts” and that because there was only one formal complaint (there were multiple informal complaints) it did not merit an investigation of any kind. Allegations made against Bard include “kissing, touching and stoking fear in young gymnasts,” but again according to Moss, none of that merited any kind of further investigation.
I want to be very clear here on two things that come up a lot in these conversations. First, we are not talking about a criminal investigation. That is a different issue altogether. So the statement “allegations are not facts” is irrelevant — this isn’t an issue of proving a criminal case, it is about listening to the concerns of athletes, many of whom are or were children at the time of the alleged actions. We need to get organizations responding in the way that best protects the athletes, not the coaches. That is, after all, supposed to be the mandate of these organizations.
Secondly, Moss’ testimony is further evidence that organizations should never investigate their own. Time and time again institutions have proved that they would rather enable a toxic culture than risk reputational damage.
We are not talking about one off-situations here. A recent CBC investigation determined that in the last four years, 83 coaches have been charged or convicted of a sexual offence against an athlete in their care across multiple sports (at least 16), and in multiple provinces and jurisdictions. Yet still, despite these shocking numbers, despite the pleas of survivors for a judicial inquiry, the Liberals reject those calls.
Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge, while acknowledging the issues that exist in sports, has denied these calls by instead implying each sport needs its own investigation, a suggestion that would not only be expensive and onerous but also completely ignores the systemic issues that exist across organizations.
On the other end of this debate is former sport minister Kirsty Duncan.
In an exclusive CBC interview, given after Duncan announced that she is taking medical leave, she described the emotional and psychological abuse she said she faced after she began her gymnastics training at age six. Duncan, who is a fierce supporter of the creation of a judicial inquiry, said the Liberal government “pushed back” on her attempts to address abuse in sport as a top priority, despite knowing what a massive issue it was, and subsequently failed to build momentum behind her efforts to prevent harassment, abuse and discrimination in the years after she left cabinet.
The Conservatives and NDP, most notably Michelle Ferreri, Karen Vechio and Leah Gazan respectively, have received considerable praise from individual survivors and organizations representing them for their questioning in committee and their push for the inquiry. They are doing so, because like Kirsty Duncan, a survivor herself, they are listening to what survivors are asking the government to do. I often hear that Liberal policy on issues around addictions, homelessness and anti-racism strategies are built on the voices of those directly impacted, on lived experience, but this attitude apparently does not include policy on sexual violence.
Survivors don’t want nice words that at this point just sound condescending. They don’t want endless committee hearings that often involve individual survivors having to be re-victimized by repeating their story again and again. They don’t want endless inquiries that would exist in a silo. They want one specific thing, a judicial inquiry, and it's about time the Liberal government gives it to them.
Kristin Raworth is a victim’s advocate and executive assistant to a city councillor in Edmonton.
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