U of R student athletes reminded of their rights
Abuse allegations have been made across multiple Canadian athletic organizations
Former Whitecaps and U20 Women’s National Team coach Bob Birarda will be sentenced later this month after pleading guilty to three counts of sexual assault and one count of touching a young person for a sexual purpose. The offences reported happened between 1998 and 2008. In 2008, Birarda was let go from Canada Soccer and the Whitecaps, but was then able to find employment at Coastal FC where he was hired on as the intake coach for U13 girls.
In July of 2022, a McLaren Global Sport Solution report was conducted as an independent review of Canada Soccer’s handling of sexual misconduct in 2007 and 2008. The report found that there was a lack of familiarity of the harassment policy among Canada Soccer senior officials in 2008, and that harassment was not a top priority issue at the time among the leadership team. The review also cited that Birarda had abused his position of power in order to groom, intimidate, threaten, and sexually harass certain players. Some people believe that his lack of misconduct post-2008 was due to him coaching his daughter throughout the following years.
Soccer isn’t the only sport making headlines for misconduct, sexual assault, and abuse by coaches and players. Canada Hockey was recently caught up in a scandal involving the 2003 and 2018 World Junior teams, where accusations of rape were brought to the public’s attention. The case of the 2003 World Juniors team allegations stem from a group sexual assault that was reportedly recorded on video. Lisa Gotell, a leading expert on sexual assault consent law in Canada, told CBC News that “individuals’ memories of a video can be used as evidence to help prosecute a case.” She also said that “the mounting allegations against elite hockey players in Canada would suggest a disturbing pattern of behaviour if they turned out to be true.”
Police in Halifax have opened an investigation into the allegations of sexual assault in July due to the investigative reporting done by TSN. There is another allegation of a group sexual assault with four players at the 2014 Gatineau Olympiques. The 2018, a World Junior case also involved an allegation of a group rape. The reported cases all involve a group of players assaulting and degrading a lone, intoxicated woman. Police in London, Ontario and Quebec City have reopened an investigation regarding these allegations. In response to these allegations, many major sponsors have cut ties with Canada Hockey, and the federal government of Canada has frozen its funding to Canada Hockey. A parliamentary committee has also been created to launch public hearings on how the organization handled these claims of sexual assault. No charges have been laid as of the time of writing in all three cases.
In May of 2022, former Canadian gymnast Abby Pearson Spadafora came forward, alleging that her Olympic coaches Dave Brubaker and Elizabeth Brubaker had physically, verbally, psychologically, and sexually abused over the course of years. Pearson is calling on independent investigation of the sport, and how this conduct has been allowed to continue. Dave Brubaker was Canada’s 2016 Rio Olympic coach but was suspended in 2017 after he was arrested and charged with multiple counts of sexual crimes. After an internal investigation was conducted, Brubaker was handed a lifetime ban by the national governing body. Elizabeth Brubaker was given a suspension in 2019 which will remain in effect until 2024.
A recent lawsuit by former gymnasts alleged that Gymnastics Canada and six affiliate provincial organizations decided to turn a blind eye to the abusive culture that existed within their organizations. The lawsuit alleges that gymnasts were exposed to inappropriate touching by coaches, being forced to train while being injured, and being threatened and humiliated. In March, over 70 current and former Canadian gymnasts called for an independent investigation into a toxic culture and abusive practices within their sport.
In response to the recent allegations against multiple sports bodies, the University of Regina brought Allison Forsyth as a guest speaker at athlete orientation to discuss the importance of Safe Sport. Forsyth is a pioneer in the Safe Sport community and has worked with Canadian governing bodies in trying to provide safer sport environments for athletes. Forsyth is a former alpine skier for Canada who has first-hand experience of how a coach-athlete power dynamic can lead to abuse; she alleges that she was sexually abused by Alpine Canadian coach Bertrand Charest. In 2017, Charest was sentenced to 12 years in prison for sexual crimes against young skiers.
In a recent interview with CBC News, Forsyth explained “I wish I could say all decisions being made right now are being made by people with lived experiences and survivors of abuse, yet they’re not. I’m not here to make anyone wrong for that. I believe there are a lot of very good people trying to help with this massive issue.” During her speech to U of R athletes, Forsyth expressed the importance of teaching athletes and coaches about their rights to try to prevent future misconduct by coaches and players. This means giving athletes the tools to understand their relationship with their coaches and how certain sport attitudes can affect an athlete’s understanding of their rights.
For instance, not showing weakness can have serious implications. In her interview with CBC News, Forsyth stated that “We need to break the culture of silence. Sport needs to break that culture of silence. I hope all the measures we’re taking help do this. I want to salute the courage these athletes had to speak out. That’s why we’re making changes.” It is important that future athletes understand their rights and that coaches and players who step out of line are held accountable for their actions – and their inactions.