Canada’s safe sport program still in need of change, says Olympic champion Jennifer Heil

Three-time Olympian Jennifer Heil is calling on the federal government to make changes to its latest safe sport program, saying it still lacks the independence necessary to properly protect all Canadian athletes from abuse and discrimination.

“We really need to see that changes are made in order to protect vulnerable athletes and stakeholders,” said Heil, a freestyle skier who won gold at the 2006 Olympics in Turin and silver at the 2010 Games in Vancouver.

Unless those changes are made, she said, “the government knowingly allows the status quo to continue, which is policies without protection.”

Heil recently wrote to the government on behalf of 12 Olympic and Paralympic athletes, asking for better protections for abuse victims in Canadian sport.

“These minimum standards include a centralized adjudication process that is fully independent from national sport organizations; victim-centric process safeguards and funding; a centralized sanctions database; and a single code of conduct with consistent language and definitions with supporting educational resources,” the letter read.

Response from Heritage Minister

Following the release of that letter, federal Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault announced last week that the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada would be tapped to provide athletes and federally funded sports organizations with an independent place to report cases of harassment, abuse and discrimination.

It’s a move that Adam van Koeverden, parliamentary secretary to the minister of Canadian Heritage, believes addresses the issues laid out by Heil and the other athletes.

“From the prospective of an athlete coming forward, this is that safe, arm’s-length, independent, one-stop shop that athletes’ organizations have been asking for,” said van Koeverden, himself a four-time Olympian who won gold in sprint kayak at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

Heil said that the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada is well-positioned to take on the work due to its experience handling anti-doping cases, but added it can’t truly do its job unless the government requires all national sports organizations to sign on to the safe sport program.

Currently, she said, organizations can choose to hire their own safe sport officer instead.

“The question is, if your sport is hiring the safe sport officer, is that a truly independent process? And it’s not,” she said.

Heil added that many athletes don’t trust the system enough to report abuse because they’ve seen past cases where victims were silenced or a supposedly independent investigation wasn’t actually conducted by a third party.

“There’s an inequitable distribution of who gets protected,” she said. “It’s actually quite complicated to navigate. It depends on your sport, it depends on just pure luck right now.”

Even if a sports organization hires its own safe sport officer, its athletes will be able to take their case to the SDRCC without concerns about conflict of interest, van Koeverden said, adding he “100 per cent” feels the system is independent and accessible to all athletes.

“I think it supports every athlete,” he said. “I think it does provide every athlete with that security.”

While many Canadian athletes have come forward with “heart-wrenching stories,” the country has a chance right now to become a leader in addressing and preventing discrimination, abuse and harassment, van Koeverden said.

“This is our opportunity to demonstrate to the world how a country creates safe spaces, how a country deals with situations that require resolution,” he said, noting how Canada became a world leader in the fight against doping after sprinter Ben Johnson was caught using steroids at the 1988 Olympics.

“Canadians tend to be groundbreaking. We’ve demonstrated leadership consistently in sport and I think this is another example of that.”