An athlete advocacy group has accused Sport Canada’s director general Vicki Walker of abdicating her responsibility to keep athletes safe.
The largely anonymous group of 450 current and former athletes, operating as Gymnasts For Change Canada, published its first open letter to Walker on March 28, in which they demanded Sport Canada fund a third-party investigation of what they termed their sport’s toxic culture and its perpetuation of sexual, psychological, emotional and verbal abuse.
“Over the past five years alone, there have been multiple complaints about and even arrests for various forms of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse,” they said in their original letter. “The subjects of these complaints have been Canadian coaches, many of whom we were exposed to as minors at GymCan sponsored training camps, provincial/national competitions, and national team assignments. We know that there are many more examples of harm that have not yet come to light, and we know that abusive behaviours continue in gyms across this country today.”
On Wednesday, the group published a second open letter to Walker, in response to a letter she sent them on April 20.
“Regretfully you have not answered, nor addressed, our call for an independent, third-party investigation into the toxic and abusive practices within Canadian gymnastics,” the group stated in its Wednesday letter.
“Sadly, your response deflects and defers any meaningful action and closely resembles how Gymnastics Canada has responded to athletes for decades. As the leading sport authority in Canada, we expect stronger leadership. Instead we are left with yet another Canadian organization enabling systemic child abuse and failing to step into their obligatory duty of care. Every day sport fails to act is another day athletes remain subject to abuse. How many more children need to be abused? How many more, because of this abuse, will contemplate suicide or self-harm before Sport Canada implements meaningful action?”
The group also published Walker’s April 20 letter on Wednesday. In it, Walker praises the group for the courage and resilience necessary to speak out about harmful behaviour, and also details some of the harm-reduction initiatives the federal government has undertaken in the past four years, including the establishment of the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner.
“I understand that work remains to be done, and Sport Canada is taking into consideration the call from athletes to increase the speed with which we are implementing initiatives, and to ensure that federally funded organizations are taking the necessary steps and actions to protect their athletes, and effectively and fairly respond when incidents arise,” Walker wrote.
“At this time we are reviewing all options to strengthen how we review and monitor federally funded sport organizations and will hold organizations accountable if they fall short of expectations,” she added later in the letter. “Additionally, we will seek to strengthen funding conditions for sport organizations to ensure that they foster a safe, welcoming and inclusive sport environment.”
Walker did not specifically mention the group’s request for a third-party investigation in her letter of April 20. The group took issue with that omission.
“We are dismayed at your reluctance to provide at least some insight into why Sport Canada will not yield (to) our call for an independent, third-party investigation,” the group stated on Wednesday. “Instead you have opted to completely abdicate responsibility, offer information that is already publicly available, leave athletes with no justice or reprieve for years of endured abuse, and offer NO hope for a better future.”