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Inquiry into entirety of Canadian sport system called for at parliamentary hearing

Anne Merklinger Anne Merklinger - The Canadian Press

Anne Merklinger says the safe sport issues that have plagued Canadian athletes recently are the result of larger problems that deserve to be put under a microscope.

The Own The Podium CEO said at a parliamentary hearing Monday that the organization would be in support of a public inquiry into sports in Canada that goes beyond safe sport.

Merklinger's answer came after NDP MP Peter Julian questioned what the federal government should be doing to ensure financial transparency, and if it should insist on victims' ability to speak out if they choose and make sure organizations don't impose non-disclosure agreements.

"We as leaders all bear a responsibility for what has happened and we all bear a responsibility to make sure it doesn't happen again," Merklinger said. "I believe the issues related to safe sport are a symptom of a much bigger problem for the sport system in Canada in that it's under-resourced, it lacks leadership and it's very fragmented.

"We would certainly support an inquiry that looks at the entire sport system. … Where are there opportunities for improved alignment, improved resourcing and stronger leadership."

Former sports minister Kirsty Duncan is among those who have demanded an inquiry into safe sport in Canada.

Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport President and CEO Jeremy Luke and executive director of values-based sport Karri Dawson and Sport'Aide executive director Sylvain Croteau also testified before the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage on Monday.

Like Merklinger, Croteau advocated looking at the entirety of Canada's sports system.

"I would like to question, not only the financial aspects of the Canadian sport system but to question the entire system overall," he said. "And why can't we think of a forum where we would have all the stakeholders from different settings, from different strata of the sports system?

"We believe we should always address the national federations but our sports organizations, our local organizations have to be heard. They have to be involved, our athletes need to be heard as well and we have to turn over every stone."

Conservative MP Kevin Waugh stated "I'm a big fan of Own The Podium" before proceeding to say he was "disturbed" to see funding provided to Canada Soccer, Hockey Canada and Gymnastics Canada — all headliners of safe-sport issues in Canada.

"Certainly, the three examples that you've provided have all come to our attention and all three instances we have put funding conditions in place to make sure that the sport organizations address the shortfalls that have come to light," Merklinger responded.

Through consultation with the national sport organizations, who oversee athletes' competitive lives, OTP makes funding recommendations directing about $70 million of Sport Canada money to NSOs for athletes with medal potential, while also providing technical advice to the NSOs.

Regarding the backlash it has faced for seemingly making results the top priority, Merklinger says the organization is meant to be of help to athletes.

"OTP was founded at the request of athletes who complained that the sport system was underfunded and that they weren't receiving the necessary support that other nations were providing their athletes," she said. "These were barriers for them in achieving their goals.

"OTP was given a mandate from Sport Canada, the Canadian Olympic Committee and Canadian Paralympic Committee to help athletes have everything they need in order to achieve their goals.

"It was never intended to put medals over anyone's well-being. The person has to come first in all instances."

Merklinger said the goals of OTP are "future-oriented," working with sport organizations that have "over an eight-year horizon of athletes on the pathway." Pointing to the idea that the help provided is for athletes to achieve their own goals and has been embraced by athlete groups, she later added that changes have been made.

"Our outreach to different athlete groups over the last two years has been much more robust than it's ever been," Merklinger said. "We just reformed our governance model to have two athlete directors who are full and equal voting members on the board.

"We have an athlete advisory council that we've created so that we can listen to and reach out to a more robust athlete voice so that we are consulting on a much more robust basis going forward."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 15, 2023.