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Heil, top Canadian athletes call on federal government to improve protections for abuse victims

Canadian two-time Olympic medallist Jennifer Heil, with support from 12 Canadian Olympians and Paralympians, penned an open letter calling on Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault to improve protections for abuse victims in Canadian sport.

The letter highlights gaps in the current national safe sport system while also detailing the changes that need to take place in order to protect athletes within Canada.

“Our sport system needs to stop normalizing abusive and harmful behaviours, and stop hiding behind ineffective processes,” read Heil’s letter.

Heil is not alone in her call for change, as the letter is officially supported by fellow Canadian athletes Alex Bilodeau, Patrick Chan, Derek Drouin, Perdita Felicien, Allison Forsyth, Brent Hayden, Beckie Scott, Jessica Tuomela, Mark Tewksbury, Helen Upperton, Tessa Virtue and Lauren Woolstencroft.

‘Action needs to be taken’

The main issues highlighted in the letter concern the treatment of abuse victims who come forward, and reasons why cases of abuse in sport need to be handled by independent investigators rather than sport organizations.

“Action needs to be taken to ensure solutions fully protect victims who come forward to report abuse and harassment in a fair, transparent and accountable manner for all,” Heil said.

“In too many cases, the athletes who courageously come forward under duress to report abuse and harassment are silenced or experience further trauma. This happens because the resolution process is managed by the sport organization that employs the person the athlete is making the claim against.”

The athletes in the letter call for an independent, centralized process to be instated that can address complaints of abuse with transparency while upholding sanctions and mandating an improved code of conduct. 

“Sport organizations should not be judges of what is appropriate behaviour or what is not,” Heil said. “These determinations should be entrusted to trained professionals such as investigators or adjudicators.”

The letter details the need for a single code of conduct with consistent language, a centralized sanctions database and victim-centric process safeguards and funding.

While the Canadian government has implemented safe sport solutions at the national level, including Athletics Canada’s code of conduct to prevent and address maltreatment in sport, Heil points out how Canada is falling behind other nations regarding treatment of victims.

“It is essential that Canada join other leading sporting nations in the effort to shift the power imbalance, protecting the health and wellbeing of all.”

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Minister of Canadian Heritage Steven Guilbeault is seen during a news conference in Ottawa on April 17, 2020. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Heil also states that appropriate solutions have been successfully developed in other Canadian sectors, while calling on Guilbeault and the Canadian sport sector to follow these examples.

“You have the historic opportunity to protect vulnerable young athletes within the Canadian sport system. One more news headline exposing further horrific athlete abuse is one too many,” Heil said.

The Olympic moguls gold medallist from Spruce Grove, Alta., has been instrumental in fighting for improved safety in Canadian sport over the years, as she designed and lead the development of the B.C. Safe Sport Program to address abuse and harassment.

“Everyone in the sport system requires and deserves the right to train and compete in psychologically and physically safe environments, free from abuse and harassment,” Heil said.

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