TORONTO — Erica Wiebe knows how Olympic dreams can be threatened with a complaint to the wrong person.
The Olympic wrestling gold medallist said is lucky to have had “amazing coaches and amazing experiences” in her sport, but has seen teammates struggle around safe sport issues.
Canadian wrestlers are appealing to Kirsty Duncan to establish a third-party body to handle cases of harassment and abuse, and on Monday sent an open letter to Canada’s Minister of Science, Sport and People with Disabilities claiming conflict of interest and inconsistency in the current system have created an environment of fear and mistrust.
“Sometimes when you have a problem with your boss, it’s really awkward to go to your boss and complain about it,” Wiebe said. “And so, if you’re having an issue with your coach, and your coach is employed by your CEO, we’ve seen it so many times where organizations are protecting the coaches, they’re protecting their employees rather than their athletes.
“So at times it doesn’t feel safe or comfortable for an athlete to come forward because we don’t want to put our goal, our lifelong dream of making an Olympic Games in jeopardy. Sometimes it’s this fear of keeping the status quo, rather than shifting the boat, because there’s been no independent body that we can go to and feel safe.”
Safe sport has been governed through the Sport Canada Accountability Framework since it was implemented in 1996 in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal involving former junior hockey coach Graham James. Sports must have a safe sport policy, and a designated individual to handle complaints, in place to receive government funding.
But critics complain policies aren’t adequately applied.
“We want the minister to know that athletes support an independent body to handle safe sport issues,” Jasmine Mian, a 2016 Olympian and chair of Wrestling Canada’s athlete council, said in a release. “It’s not only in the best interest of athletes, but also in the best interest of the NSO. What constitutes safe sport should be consistent across Canada.”
The lack of a third party facilitator, Mian said, makes athletes fearful of reporting issues to their sport organizations.
“They worry about how reporting a serious issue would affect their reputation, team selection and funding,” Mian said. “Even if an NSO has a fair process for reviewing and handling these serious issues, athletes may not perceive that the process is free of bias. Coaches and parents often feel the same way. You don’t want to raise an issue if you think it could adversely affect an athlete’s career.”
Duncan created the Working Group on Gender Equity in Sport in May, and safe sport is part of the group’s mandate.
The wrestlers’ initiative came from a couple of Wrestling Canada workshops earlier this month in Vancouver, where athletes discussed safe sport issues including code of conduct requirements for coaches with external facilitator Amanda Stanec. One of the major issues was the need for an independent body.
Wiebe, a 29-year-old from Stittsville, Ont., defeated Guzel Manyurova of Kazakhstan in wrestling’s 75kg event in Rio. She hopes her voice can contribute to a safer sports environment.
“Now I have this position as an Olympic champion, as somebody who has a voice in Canadian sport, I feel like I have a little more power than even I did two years ago, and so for me, it’s essential to use it in the right way,” she said.
She hopes wrestling can pave the way for other sports to follow.
“When I think about the role models and pioneers of women’s wrestling, the women that came before me were leaders on the mat, in demanding an equal spot in the sport,” she said. “It’s still this perceived masculine terrain, and yet women in Canada are global leaders in the sport of wrestling, we’re feared among the world because of what we do on the mat.
“And so from a Canadian sport context, when I think about my teammates, and the people who have come before me, they set an example on what it means to be Canadian, and what it means to be a woman and what role you can have in society. And this whole team, the men and women, have supported this initiative and would love to see it happen.”
Wiebe commended Wrestling Canada, which recently formed the national Safety First Task Force to review recommendations stemming from an independent review of the coaching culture in the sport. The NSO had hired lawyer David Bennett to review coaching practices on the heels of two anonymous complaints of sexual abuse.
“They’re trying to do the right thing, and they’re trying to move this forward. I really think that they can,” she said.
While the sentencing of U.S. gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar might have been a watershed moment for sexual harassment and assault in sport, Canada has had its share of high-profile cases. Marcel Aubut resigned as COC president in 2015 after an investigation over numerous sexual harassment complaints.
In June, several former members of Canada’s ski team spoke publicly about the abuse suffered at the hands of former coach Bertrand Charest in the 1990s. Charest was convicted last year of 37 offences of sexual assault and exploitation.
On Friday, the sexual assault trial of former Canadian women’s gymnastics coach Dave Brubaker wrapped up in Sarnia, Ont. Brubaker has pleaded not guilty to one count of sexual assault and one count of sexual exploitation, and Justice Deborah Austin is expected to deliver her decision on Feb. 13.
AthletesCAN, an independent athlete organization, also supports the implementation of a independent body with a universal policy.
“As the association of Canada’s national team athletes, the number of athletes we here from, support and represent through this difficult process of dealing with issues of abuse, harassment, discrimination and maltreatment continues to rise,” said Ashley LaBrie, AthletesCAN’s executive director.
AthletesCAN recently formed the Safe Sport Athlete Working Group, to implement a baseline prevalence study exploring the high performance athlete experience with abuse, harassment, discrimination and maltreatment.