From problems to solutions: U of T sport scholars outline steps to address challenges facing Canadian sport

From left to right: Professor Emeritus Bruce Kidd, Professor Emeritus Peter Donnelly and Professor Gretchen Kerr, dean of KPE

Professor Gretchen Kerr, dean of the University of Toronto Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KPE), and Professors Emeriti Bruce Kidd and Peter Donnelly recently submitted a brief to the House of Commons Standing Committees on the Status of Women and Canadian Heritage proposing solutions to the challenges facing Canadian sport.

The sport scholars addressed issues such as widespread maltreatment and abuse of athletes and other participants, including referees, the lack of participation by women, girls, persons with disabilities, visible minorities and the poor, and the lack of accountability and transparency in governance, including the lack of athlete representation in decision-making.

“While the above challenges have been well-studied in Canada and internationally by academic researchers, government advisory bodies and athlete advocates, they have fallen well below the radar of public opinion until recently,” said Kerr. “We are hoping that the Committees can help bring about greater public awareness and long needed changes by shining a broader spotlight on these issues.” 

The current crises, according to the scholars, stem from the failure to frame Canadian sport within human rights. 

“Canada has signed a number of international agreements that require member states to bring a rights-based perspective to sport, physical education and physical activity, and to provide protections to designated populations, including children and women,” said Kidd. 

The scholars recommend the Standing Committees invite the Ministers of Canadian Heritage, Sport, and Women and Gender Equality and Youth to report annually on the extent to which Canada realizes its international human rights obligations in sport under the various international agreements – and that this report be made public. 

“Persistent lobbying from athletes, researchers and some in the sports sector and federal sport ministries have led to some encouraging steps at the national level such as the development of the Universal Code of Conduct to Prevent and Address Maltreatment in Sports (UCCMS) and the establishment of The Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner (OSIC),” said Donnelly. “However, we are a long way from realizing the hoped-for protections of these two initiatives.”

The scholars believe this is because the UCCMS is not widely understood and in many cases the professionals in the sport world are unaware it exists. They suggest the Committees can help by recommending that all sports organizations at all levels in Canada—not just National Sports Organizations (NSOs)--adopt and enforce them.

The scholars also point out that OSIC is currently accessible only to national level athletes and recommend immediate steps be taken to develop complaint processes for provincial and community level sport participants and those in educational institutions. As a starting point, they suggest the Committees advance safe sport by enabling all sports participants--not just those in the NSOs—to access OSIC. 

To eradicate maltreatment in sports, the scholars recommend the Committees consider several research-based interventions:

  1. Introduce regulations for child athletes, who can be engaged in as many hours of intensive training and competition as full-time and professional athletes;
  2. Revise the financial structures of Canadian sport so that they are not providing incentives for medals at any cost, but rather for safe and healthy, rights-based high performance sports, with appropriate monitoring and evaluation; and
  3. Include athletes in any decisions concerning athletes

The scholars recommend that elected athlete representatives comprise 50 per cent of all decision-making bodies at the national and provincial/territorial levels of Canadian sport, and that their participation in those decision-making bodies be protected from retaliation.

“Athletes are the basis of the system, with as great a personal investment in sport as that of any other estate,” said Kerr. “Many of the national level athletes are accomplished spokespersons, and when called upon to represent the ethics of Canada and Canadian sport, they do so with intelligence, courage and conviction.” 

The scholars also reflected on the ongoing crisis of physical inactivity saying that while the abuse of athletes has become a front-page story, the decline in all sports participation, especially among women and girls, and the increasing financial and institutional barriers to participation, have been largely ignored. 

“The personal health and wellness benefits and the positive community impacts of participation in sport are well documented,” said Kidd. “The benefits should not be reserved for those who can afford to pay for them. They are basic human rights.”

To ensure that the objectives of the Physical Activity and Sport Act are given more than rhetorical support, the scholars recommend that the federal government realign the funding of Canadian sport to ensure equal weight is given to participation and excellence. They also recommend that one per cent of the national and provincial health budgets be set aside for ‘sport for all’.

Finally, the scholars address the crisis in governance in Canadian sport brought to light by the recent exposure of Hockey Canada’s failure to take corrective action in a list of alleged sexual violence cases involving Canadian hockey players. 

“For a national inquiry to be productive, it would need to investigate the lack of transparency and accountability in Canadian sports governance, the lack of adequate athlete representation, the disconnect between the activities at the national level and those at the provincial/territorial and municipal levels, and the contributions of public bodies such as municipalities, colleges and universities,” said Donnelly. “Such an inquiry should also investigate the relationship between Sport Canada and the NSOs.” 

In recent years, according to the scholars, Sport Canada has systematically failed to enforce compliance with its various policy requirements, from safe sport to gender equity. The scholars recommend that the Heritage Committee initiate the creation of an enforceable Canadian code of good sports governance, along the lines of the Cologne Consensus and international best practice, using a consultative process similar to that which led to the creation of the UCCMS. 

Full brief submitted to the House of Commons Standing Committees on the Status of Women and Canadian Heritage: