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Qualtrough returns as Canada's sports minister, replaces St-Onge

Carla Qualtrough Canadian Minister of Sport Carla Qualtrough - Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Carla Qualtrough returns as federal minister of sport a more experienced cabinet member, and at a tumultuous time.

The former Paralympic swimmer will face continued calls for a national inquiry into Canadian sport, which her predecessor Pascale St-Onge said was in a safe-sport crisis.

Qualtrough was reassigned the sports file in Wednesday's cabinet shuffle in Ottawa. St-Onge was shifted to the heritage department, which has sport under its umbrella.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau changed sport leaders for the fifth time in his Liberal government's eight years and amid a flood of athlete complaints and reports of abuse, maltreatment and harassment.

Safe-sport issues dominated St-Onge's 21 months as sport minister.

Parliamentary committees have heard revelations in recent months from tearful athletes about mental, physical and sexual abuse, and their fears for their careers if they reported it to their organizations' leadership.

Canada had never had a sport minister like Qualtrough when the Delta MP was first appointed to that portfolio and to persons with disabilities in 2015.

The Paralympic athlete, visually impaired lawyer and mother of four arrived from positions of sport leadership, including president of the Canadian Paralympic Committee and chair of the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada.

Qualtrough has been Trudeau's minister of employment and disability inclusion since 2019 and oversaw public services and procurement from 2017 to 2019.

"She was a junior minister in 2015. Now she's a very experienced and accomplished federal minister on several difficult files," said Bruce Kidd, professor emeritus in sport and public policy at the University of Toronto and a 1960 Olympian.

"I'm hoping her appointment means that the Prime Minister wants to give much more attention to resolving the crisis in sport.

"The fact that Pascale St-Onge has been promoted to heritage and Carla now in sport and the two of them working together with a cabinet relationship, I'm very encouraged by that."

Gymnasts For Change co-founders Amelia Cline and Kim Shore, who have testified in Ottawa about abuse they experienced as athletes, met with Qualtrough in Ottawa in May.

"We felt she was very receptive to what we were saying and really motivated to actually see change come to the sport system," Cline said. "At that point, we didn't know she was going to be the sport minister.

"We welcome a change in leadership at this point. I think Carla brings a breadth of experience and knowledge that this portfolio really needs. She held the position before, which is helpful, and she knows the sport system well enough to know how broken it is."

Said Shore: "She was able to connect with us as survivors. She's had so many barriers put in front of her as an athlete, as a person, and I believe she said flat out to us she succeeded in her sport journey in spite of the sport system, not because of it, and that really resonated.

"She's operating in a completely different environment than it was eight years ago. She will have advocates like us and others that who will be supporting and helping illuminate the way."

Qualtrough was followed by Kent Hehr and then Kirsty Duncan as sports ministers between 2015 and 2018.

There wasn't a designated sports minister from November 2019 until St-Onge's appointment, when Heritage minister Steven Guilbeault oversaw the file during that gap.

Duncan introduced safe-sport policies during her year in the sports portfolio.

They included a national helpline, a third-party investigation unit, mandatory prevention training, a coaching code of conduct and an agreement from all provincial and territorial sport leaders to make safe sport a priority.

St-Onge was under pressure to do a lot more.

Revelations that Hockey Canada settled a lawsuit with a woman who alleged she was raped by members of the national junior men's team at a 2018 gala — and that Hockey Canada used a portion of minor hockey registration fees to settle it — sparked national outrage.

St-Onge was called on to use her funding powers to punish sports organizations that allowed a culture of abuse, and to force change within those cultures.

She suspended Hockey Canada's funding last year and ordered an audit to determine if public funds were used to settle lawsuits. The audit determined public funds were not involved, and Hockey Canada's federal money was restored in April.

St-Onge also froze Gymnastics Canada's money until it became a signatory to the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner (OSIC), which the organization did in October.

She's ordered an independent financial audit and governance review of Canada Soccer, with federal funding a condition of that work.

St-Onge established the Office of the Sport Integrity Commission to be an independent body for abuse complaints. OSIC began processing complaints and reports over a year ago in June 2022.

All NSO's were given a deadline of April 1 of this year to become signatories to OSIC lest they lost federal funding.

St-Onge announced a slate of safe-sport reforms in May, including a public registry of people who have been sanctioned or suspended within the sport system, restricting the use of non-disclosure agreements, making financial statements public and changing the makeup of boards of directors.

Demands for a national public inquiry continue from several quarters, including St-Onge's predecessor Duncan.

St-Onge said in May: "I will respond to the requests from athletes and survivors for a national inquiry. This is a legitimate request and I'm working to be able to announce this as soon as I can."

How St-Onge's shift out of the sports ministry will impact a possible national inquiry is unclear.

"She rightly identified that this was a crisis and was very clear she felt she thought this was an urgent issue," Cline said.

"Her announcement that she made several months ago that there would be some sort of national inquiry didn't happen and we're not really sure why.

"From a survivor and advocate perspective, we did feel there was a level of stonewalling that was happening and that dialogue wasn't really occurring in a way that was productive. We're encouraged and optimistic about a leadership change on that front."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 26, 2023.