When the rookie sports minister dives head first
The Federal Sports Minister Pascale St-Onge has had a lot to do since joining the federal cabinet.
The Canadian sporting world has been hit by several scandals in 2022. Thrown into the heart of the storm: a rookie minister who wants to clean house, but who is sometimes criticized for playing defensive.
I did not expect so much controversy!
Seated in her office in the riding of Brome-Missisquoi, Minister Pascale St-Onge lets out a little laugh nervous.
When she agreed to serve as Minister of Sports in October 2021, the 45-year-old new politician did not expect to have to deal with a series of scandals.
Stories continue to to shake up athletes, parents and coaches in arenas, sports centers and gymnasiums across the country.
Sport, in general, is associated with very positive things. It was an Olympic year, the resumption of sport after the pandemic.
Without being reductive, the role of Minister of Sports is generally considered a junior position, where newcomers learn their skills, attend sports competitions and galas, while distributing checks to athletes and associations.
< p class="e-p">Pascale St-Onge's first year didn't go as planned.
The political rookie, who narrowly won his seat (with a majority of 186 votes), was thrust to the forefront of a series of controversies: allegations of sexual assault, harassment, abuse in numerous sports disciplines.
Not the least of which are allegations of gang rape by members of Hockey Canada's 2018 junior team.
Federal Sports Minister Pascale St-Onge had to respond to journalists on numerous occasions, particularly in connection with the Hockey Canada scandal.
During her first press scrum on the question, she seemed nervous. The round eyes, the hesitant voice in front of the television cameras. I don't remember, she says with a smirk.
She says she forgot the details of this meeting with the press. But not the feeling that inhabited him.
I remember being very shocked by the allegations of gang rape. And also to know that there were probably professional athletes involved who were still playing in the NHL, who were leading a good life, who were fulfilling their dream… I was extremely shocked and disturbed.
She seemed shaken, a little frozen and unsteady to find herself in the limelight, say some of her colleagues in parliament.
We saw the human. That's what was refreshing, says a deputy who wished to speak on condition of anonymity. Often some ministers are cautious, but she was not afraid to express her feelings and take a stand.
Since this episode, she has regained her composure. Driven by the wave of denunciations that affect a world of sport that seems to be in full transformation, the rookie minister is betting on an in-depth reform of the environment.
An ambition welcomed by some, but towards which others remain skeptical.
Pascale St-Onge played volleyball in college and university level leagues, and swam for 11 years. It's 20 hours of training per week, in addition to competitions. I know what it takes for our athletes to reach the national level.
She claims to have had great experiences in the world of sport and within her team. But she has witnessed psychological abuse and unhealthy relationships involving other athletes with their coaches.
I have seen coaches losing patience, yelling at their athletes, she remembers. It was not acceptable then and, according to her, it should be even less so today.
Hockey. Synchronized swimming. Gymnastic. Boxing. Alpine skiing.
Between 1998 and 2018, 340 coaches in Canada were charged with a sexual offence.
A quarter of athletes aged 14 to 17 have been victims of sexual violence, according to a study carried out by a researcher from Laval University in 2018.
Emotional violence affects 20% of athletes under the age of 16, according to a survey conducted by AthletesCAN.
I would have thought that since my time as an athlete, things would have changed more, confides the minister. I can't believe we're still there in 2022 in the world of sport.
The Minister is proposing an overhaul of sport funding in Canada, which will be made public in February or March.
Basically, any association or federation that receives funding from Sport Canada will have to adopt a new code of conduct. It will also have to entrust complaints and investigations for any type of abuse to a new independent body: the Office of the Commission for Integrity in Sports (BCIS).
For the moment, about forty associations (out of 90) have agreed to change their way of doing things. For the others, their subsidies are at risk in the next funding schedule, assures the minister. Which still leaves a door open to flexibility.
There will be a grace period for organizations that show good will and intend to place themselves under the aegis of the BCIS. But if organizations are rebellious and refuse to comply, federal funding will be called into question.
If Pascale St-Onge received mostly flowers for the way she handled the crisis that affected Hockey Canada (and the controversies in general in sports), the minister also attracted her share of criticism.
Some athlete groups denounce that the Minister waited for the multiple crises to come to light before acting. Others find that the politician seems reluctant to get to the bottom of things.
She is criticized for not doing enough to expose abuse issues that have been hidden for years, while she is on every platform to expose scandals once they come to light, organizations say defenses of athletes.
Many (including fellow Liberal and ex-sports minister Kristy Duncan) are calling for an independent public inquiry to shed light on historic abuse cases in all sports in Canada. A bit like the Dubin commission on doping in the late 1980s.
The Gymnasts for Change group implores the minister to act. Every day that passes without action from the Canadian government is another child who suffers the most heinous form of emotional, physical and sexual abuse, while the victims must fight against a system that has not been able to protect them.
Some athletes and MPs find that the Minister sometimes plays too defensively.
My fear, says the Bloc MP and Sports spokesperson Sébastien Lemire is that by refusing to hold an independent public inquiry, she is trying to protect her creation, the BCIS, and that we are forgetting the athletes, who must be at the heart of change.
The main interested party defends herself. I am not reluctant, I listen to the athletes, points out Pascale St-Onge. There are several formulas for investigating these cases of abuse. It is being studied in committee, we will see the recommendations.