Canadian gymnasts call on Minister of Sport to suspend government funding for their sport

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More than 500 Canadian gymnasts are calling on Canada’s Minister of Sport to freeze funding to their national sport organization.

In a public letter Thursday to Minister Pascale St-Onge — and after four months of “sharing devastating stories” of years of abuse — Gymnastics for Change, which represents 508 athletes, reiterates calls for tough action.

This includes a third-party investigation and suspension of funding, as was done with Hockey Canada.

Their initial request months ago, they said, was ignored by Gymnastics Canada (GymCan), Sport Canada, and “now by your office, and to the great detriment of child gymnasts across the country.”

The letter comes a week after a trainer in Lethbridge, Alta., was charged with sexually assaulting a seven-year-old girl.

Several gymnasts told The Canadian Press earlier this week that they wondered if the abuse could have been avoided if their calls for intervention had been heeded.

“Over the past four months, we have publicly bared our souls, sharing stories of the devastating treatment we have suffered at the hands of our sport,” the letter reads. “We have called for an independent, third-party investigation to address the systemic culture of abuse that is prevalent in Canadian gymnastics.”

GymCan recently announced that it has commissioned McLaren Global Sport Solutions to conduct a “culture review” of the sport’s national governing body. But the gymnasts rejected the exam because it is “bought and paid for by the very organization to be investigated”.

The Gymnasts for Change group, which grew from an original 70 members three months ago, is calling for funding to be halted to stop taxpayers’ money going to what they say is an ineffective and harmful exam that whiten the experience of survivors.

St-Onge froze funding for Hockey Canada following the national organization’s handling of an alleged sexual assault and an out-of-court settlement.

Thursday’s letter said GymCan and Sport Canada were aware of the potential for large-scale abuse complaints. GymCan CEO Ian Moss told Sport Canada General Manager Vicki Walker in August 2020 – in a communication recently published by TSN – “there could be a historic wave of athlete complaints very soon.”

In April 2021 and again in December, the GymCan Board was urged by survivors to launch an independent investigation into the sport.

The gymnasts released their first public letter on March 28, urging Sport Canada to investigate.

“According to this timeline, GymCan and Sport Canada had knowledge of alleged systemic abuse in gymnastics and had an opportunity to act on it for at least two years and did nothing, allowing the abuse to continue against child athletes. Canadians without intervention,” the letter said. “We had hoped for a better and more urgent response from you.”

Emails to St-Onge, according to Thursday’s letter, went unanswered.

“To date, your office has taken no action to hold GymCan or Sport Canada accountable and all those who presided over this abuse crisis remain in a position of authority,” the gymnasts wrote. “There was no accountability and no meaningful action… We will never know for sure whether your requested initiation of the investigation would have prevented this latest devastating example of abuse (in Lethbridge).

“But your inaction sends a clear message to every young gymnast that abuse in their sport does not deserve your attention; your inaction sends a message to every abuser and predator that it’s ‘open season’ for abusers in gymnastics; your inaction sends a message to every enabler of this abuse that they will not be held accountable for turning a blind eye; your inaction makes you increasingly complicit.”

The gymnasts say a third-party investigation could provide information to help end abuse in their sport, and send a message to all sports organizations that the government will hold them accountable if toxic cultures are allowed to continue.

Canada’s first Sport Integrity Commissioner, Sarah-Eve Pelletier, began receiving and processing complaints of mistreatment in sport on June 20. While the bureau expected to receive a flurry of complaints at the opening, it was unclear whether the bureau would hear historic complaints.

“Our shared experiences of emotional, physical, psychological and sexual abuse contain valuable truths that must be revealed if change is truly to be achieved,” the gymnasts wrote. “Survivor stories must be studied to understand how violence has prevailed in the Canadian system for decades. To ignore the past is to risk repeating it. And right now, in gymnasiums across Canada, the past violence repeats itself and children pay the price.

“We need the Minister of Sport to work with us to begin the long overdue investigation… The safety of Canada’s children depends on your action and your courage.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on July 20, 2022.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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