Canadian gymnasts slam inaction by federal sports minister after toxic culture reports

WARNING: This story contains graphic details some readers may find disturbing.

Calls to investigate the “toxic culture and rampant child abuse entrenched in Canadian gymnastics” have gone unanswered for seven months, a group of more than 500 Canadian gymnasts allege in an open letter released on Wednesday.

Now, the group known as Gymnasts For Change Canada is “urging and imploring” federal sports minister Pascale St-Onge to initiate an independent third-party judicial investigation “for the wellbeing of every gymnast in the country.”

The letter states that “The lack of response sends the message that these voices do not matter, and their experiences are not worthy of action.”

According to the group, these experiences include children being publicly humiliated, sexually groomed, forced to train on significant injuries, deprived of food and verbally and physically abused.

The list, which includes other disturbing details, was reportedly sent in a June 22 email addressed to St-Onge, her chief of staff, and a Sport Canada representative.

Gymnasts For Change Canada claim the email “has been met with no action” from St-Onge’s office, along with another open letter from March of 2022 asking for an independent investigation on the matters.

“Surely by now their voices are too loud to be ignored and yet their courage has been met with no action from your office.”

St-Onge responds to letter

St-Onge responded to the letter in a media scrum on Wednesday in Ottawa.

“The stories that we’ve heard about abuse or maltreatment in their sport at all levels, sometimes it’s a local clubs, provincial clubs or the national level, I have to say that it is totally heartbreaking and extremely disturbing,” she said.

The sport minister added that there needs to be a “collective response,” and that the creation of the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner (OSIC) is the independent body that athletes across sports have asked for.

“Yes it’s funded by the federal government, just like any court of justice that is supported financially by the federal government, but it’s still an independent entity,” St-Onge said. “And this is a part of the solution so that athletes have somewhere to address their cases of abuse and maltreatment whether it’s individual complaints or cultural sport assessments.”

The minister said in a statement to The Canadian Press that her staff and senior Sport Canada officials have been in conversation with the gymnasts for the past six months.

“The experiences of survivors have driven the work I am doing to reform the sport system,” St-Onge said. “We continue to work on a way forward for an independent investigation, and we have a tool we can use immediately, which is [OSIC]. That office can review, right now, what has happened and is happening in specific sports.”

The group says abusive behaviour continues to exist in the gymnastics community.

“These examples are not historical, and abuse continues in gyms all across this country today.

“Today we call for your action … Every day without that action from the Canadian government is another day children suffer the most despicable forms of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.”

WATCH | Minister of Sport responds to Canadian gymnasts’ call for action:

Minister of Sport responds to Canadian gymnasts’ call for action against sport’s toxic culture

Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge addresses the calls from Canadian gymnasts who penned an open letter to her office about dealing with toxic culture in the sport.

This past summer, gymnastics coach Jamie Ellacott was charged with sexually assaulting four girls, ranging in age from seven to 14, in Lethbridge, Alta.

Abby Spadafora — who detailed in a public letter in May her own allegations of years of sexual, emotional and physical abuse in the 1990s — wonders if a federal investigation could have stopped the Lethbridge assaults before they allegedly happened.

“It’s been really hard to swallow. I didn’t sleep for days after [the allegations] came out, because we had already been saying to the sport minister gymnastics needs a true independent investigation that meets judicial standards,” Spadafora said. “And I still to this day wonder could that have been prevented if an investigation had been started?”

Alexandra Landry, who competed in rhythmic gymnastics for Canada at the 2012 London Olympics, told CBC News on Wednesday that she was among the athletes to sign the letter.

She said she experienced both physical and verbal abuse as an athlete, including being slapped in the face by a coach after a misstep during international competition. She also said her coach pressured and shamed her for not being skinny enough. Landry said she was placed on a watermelon-only diet, which stripped her of the energy needed to train at a top level.

“And then of course pinching your fat, comparing you to other girls, threatening your spot on the team, telling you that you’re an embarrassment to Canada because of what you look like,” Landry added. “Just a lot of shame and hurtful comments that I would receive every single day.”

Now 28, Landry said the shame reached a point where she couldn’t look at herself in the mirror and had to turn off the lights while getting changed.

Landry, who competed for Canada in rhythmic gymnastics at the 2012 Olympics, recalled her own stories of abuse. (Dave St-Amant/CBC)

She said she was “saddened and shocked” by the stories of other gymnasts that recently came to light.

“You know what you go through, but you don’t know what other people are going through,” Landry said. “And just even more surprised that no action is being taken. I feel like it does take a lot for athletes to come forward and talk about what happened in their sport and what’s going on and for that to kind of just not be heard is very disappointing.”

Landry added that she hopes her story helps create change and assists athletes currently in the sport or thinking of becoming a gymnast.

“I want [Gymnastics Canada] to do an independent investigation. I want them to show that they are willing to change and they’re willing to do what it takes to create an environment that’s safe for athletes.”

Public inquiry

Liberal MP and former sport minister Kirsty Duncan is pushing for a full public inquiry that would probe the problem of abuse across all sport, much like the Dubin Inquiry that investigated doping in Canadian sport in 1989.

Kim Shore, a former member of GymCan’s board of directors, said there is precedence. Several countries including Australia and Great Britain have done independent investigations. Australia’s was completed by the Australian Human Rights Commission, while Great Britain’s Whyte Rview was co-commissioned by UK Sport and Sport England.

“It’s so unbelievable that in a wonderful country like Canada, that there are so many capable entities stuck in apathy when it comes to child abuse,” Shore said. “Nine other countries have completed independent investigations, many at their government’s behest, so what is wrong? What more do we have to do as survivors to get action and to protect children?”

The group also notes that Gymnastics Canada signed onto the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissionaire (OSIC), but argues this interferes with “gymnasts’ need for a judicial inquiry,” citing reasons such as the OSIC’s limited resources, lack of independence, lack of subpoena powers and inability to enforce sanctions.

“The Commissionaire and her team have graciously accepted our decision not to move forward with a Sport Environment Assessment, recognizing that gymnastics requires a mechanism equipped in substance and scope, to tackle the severe and systemic nature of abuse that plagues gymnastics.”

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Jorge Oliveira

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