Five months after three young female athletes filed complaints about the inappropriate behaviour of their weightlifting coach, the same man has been charged with the sexual assault of a different young person.
Isaac Smith, 33, was charged with sexual assault on Sept. 28. Those allegations have not been proven in court and CBC News was unable to reach Smith for comment.
The sexual assault is alleged to have occurred between Jan. 1 and June 24.
CBC News spoke with two of the three women who filed complaints on April 21 to Weightlifting Nova Scotia, the group that facilitates access to the sport and organizes events in the province. The women allege their complaints were not taken seriously and say Smith should not have been allowed to continue coaching while the investigation was underway. They say they came forward to protect other women from further harm.
“What if he was suspended right in April, right when our complaint got filed?” said Haley Warnica, one of the three original complainants. “Would that have changed anything?”
In a statement, Weightlifting Nova Scotia said it hired an independent investigator the day after it received the complaint but said the investigation was “significantly delayed” due to circumstances beyond its control, without providing further detail.
The investigator found at least 30 violations of Weightlifting Nova Scotia’s code of ethics, ranging from not fostering self-esteem among athletes, making unwelcome sexualized comments and shaming athletes.
Unwanted touching allegations
Both Warnica, who trained with Smith for three years starting in spring 2017, and complainant Jane Nicholson, who trained with him for seven years starting in summer 2015, are now 26.
In the report, and in interviews with CBC News, they said Smith questioned them daily about their weight, monitored their social media posts, tried to control their diets, gave them the “silent treatment” when they didn’t listen, touched them inappropriately by putting his hand on their legs or rubbing their backs and made unwelcome comments.
“He said in front of multiple people, ‘You know, you’re skinny, but at least you didn’t lose your ass,'” Warnica said.
“Say if we were being ‘crazy’ or something, he would say, ‘Oh, cool your tits.’ And that’s obviously very disgusting in my opinion,” said Nicholson.
The investigator’s report states that the allegation was that Smith touched female athletes differently than he touched male athletes, but the investigator found there was no evidence provided that Smith touched any female athletes in a sexual manner, nor in a manner that was inappropriate.
Weightlifting Nova Scotia suspended Smith from all competitions, events, programs or initiatives for eight months. The suspension was retroactive to April 21, when the initial complaint was made, but because the sanction was not released until Aug.10, Smith was able to continue attending events after April 21. He also continued coaching because his private business is outside the purview of Weightlifting Nova Scotia.
However, the organization said it received an additional complaint against Smith on June 28, and it sent an email to its membership the following day to inform athletes it had “provisionally suspended Isaac Smith” under Section 32 of its code of conduct, which states that an “alleged incident is of such seriousness as to warrant immediate suspension of an individual pending a final decision.”
The organization said it learned of the criminal charge against Smith on Oct. 3.
Its investigation into the June complaint has been delayed indefinitely due to the ongoing criminal proceeding. This means Smith remains suspended.
Weightlifting Nova Scotia Suspension
Furthermore, the provincial organization notified Weightlifting Canada of the criminal charge and it has imposed a provisional suspension at the national level, pending the outcome of an investigation.
“How many times does someone have to break a code of conduct to actually be permanently suspended?” Nicholson said of the original eight-month sanction.
“In my mind, that’s a slap on the wrist compared to the years of trauma that he has caused us mentally.”
A notice of the original investigation and sanction is posted on Weightlifting Nova Scotia’s website. CBC News has reviewed a more in-depth 13-page letter of findings, which was distributed to the complainants. Only Weightlifting Nova Scotia and the investigator have the complete report, which the organization says is “private and confidential” and will not be shared with the public.
The organization also placed two conditions on Smith’s return to events following the original investigation: firstly, that he provide a letter from a registered mental health or human resources professional confirming he had addressed the underlying issues that led to his conduct and then that he provide a letter outlining the work he had done to understand why and how his conduct breached the organization’s code of ethics.
The investigator noted that Smith showed remorse for his actions and stopped providing nutrition advice to athletes, referring them instead to a nutrition coach — listing those things as mitigating factors in his favour.
The report states that the executive body of Weightlifting Nova Scotia “decided to provide Mr. Smith with an opportunity to learn from his mistakes and improve his behaviour,” noting that the sanction was meant to reflect the investigator’s finding that Smith has “rehabilitative potential.”
WATCH | Investigation into N.S. weightlifting coach:
The organization declined to be interviewed, citing “confidentiality limitations” but shared a statement and agreed to answer some questions in writing over email.
The information, shared on behalf of the all-volunteer Weightlifting Nova Scotia executive by Jacob Glover, the former president and current vice-president of SafeSport & Culture, said the organization only has the authority to discipline its members. It has no authority to prevent coaches from continuing to train athletes in a private business. It neither regulates nor certifies coaches, but rather it helps facilitate access to the National Coaching Certification Program, which is administered by the Coaching Association of Canada.
Women call for transparency & support
Warnica and Nicholson are calling for more transparency when it comes to how the organization shares information about sanctions with its membership.
“It’s buried on the website. It’s under, like, a second tab, all the way at the bottom,” Nicholson said. “There’s so many of his athletes that continued to go to his gym, not having any idea that we all filed a report or that we put in complaints and he broke the code of conduct.”
Weightlifting Nova Scotia has now updated its website to include a red bar across the top of the main page indicating the “important information for our membership.” It takes the visitor directly to the notice of sanction against Smith.
Warnica and Nicholson also say policies need to change, particularly when it comes to offering support to athletes who complain about inappropriate behaviour or leave the sport abruptly.
“There was a pattern of female athletes leaving Isaac’s gym, and very competitive, very good female athletes leaving. And [Nova Scotia Weightlifting] never did anything about it,” said Warnica.
The organization said it is taking steps to improve its response when it comes to supporting athletes who drop out without warning but that it would not reach out to anyone involved in a complaint during an ongoing investigation to avoid any perception of bias.
Both women say they came forward because they wanted to continue competing, but they no longer felt safe being in the same environment as Smith. They also want to protect other women.
“I felt like we did our part in putting the complaint in in April,” said Warnica. “But [Nova Scotia Weightlifting] didn’t do what they could.”
In its statement, the organization said it recognizes that abuse in sport is a serious problem that requires a systemic and proactive response. It has a new board of directors, elected Oct. 5, and said it will “continue to devote significant time and energy to meeting with, listening to, and actively engaging with the weightlifting community to understand how to prevent abuse like this in the future.”
It has already implemented a new complaint and discipline policy that requires independent administration and adjudication of complaints, which means the executive will not decide future punishments itself, as it did in the original complaint against Smith.