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Water Polo Canada fostered toxic culture for more than a decade, lawsuit says

Water Polo Water Polo - The Canadian Press

Four former members of Canada’s national water polo team program have filed a $5.5 million lawsuit against the federation, alleging its top executives, coaches, and support staff fostered a toxic culture for more than a decade.

  According to the lawsuit, athletes were sexually harassed, encouraged to make sexual, racist, and homophobic jokes, threatened by one coach who told them that they would be shot or beaten with a baseball bat if they performed poorly, criticized and mocked for their physical appearance, and warned repeatedly to honour the organization’s “circle of trust.”

A 38-page statement of claim was filed in Ontario Superior Court on April 29 and served today on Water Polo Canada. The plaintiffs, Sophie Baron La Salle, Katrina Monton, Stephanie Valin, and an athlete referred to in court documents as “A.A.”, were members of the women’s junior and senior national teams between 2004 and 2016.

The plaintiffs have asked for $1 million for general and aggravated damages for breach of fiduciary duty, breach of contract and vicarious liability for physical, psychological, and emotional abuse, and sexual harassment. They have also requested $4 million for past and future economic loss, special damages, including the cost of past and future care, and $500,000 in punitive damages.

Water Polo Canada, based in Ottawa, is a not for profit that receives federal government funding. In 2021-22, WPC received $2.2 million from Sport Canada while its carded athletes received $684,130, according to government records.

The plaintiffs say that the actions of federation staff – some of whom they say participated in alleged abuse with others choosing to ignore it – have caused them to suffer emotional, physical, and psychological harm, anxiety and depression, personal shame and self-blame, suicidal ideation, PTSD, difficulties with memory, panic attacks, alcohol abuse, and profound issues with trust.

The allegations have not been tested in court and Water Polo Canada has not filed a statement of defence.

The former national team members are the latest in a string of Canadian athletes to come forward with allegations of rampant misconduct within their federation. Gymnastics Canada, Alpine Canada, Rowing Canada, Canada Soccer, and Hockey Canada all have navigated crises over the past several years amid allegations of misconduct.

While they are not listed as defendants in the claim, the lawsuit makes a series of allegations against national team coaches and staff, including Baher El Sakkary, who coached the women’s junior national team from 2004-05; Daniel Berthelette, who was a technical advisor and assistant coach with the senior women’s national team from 2007-11; Pat Oaten, who was the senior women’s national team coach from 2002 until 2012; and Guy Baker, who coached the senior women’s national team from 2012-14. 

“Baher, Dan, Pat, and Guy together fostered a toxic culture at WPC throughout the plaintiffs’ many years on the Women’s National Team,” the lawsuit says. “It was a culture marked by anger, violence, bullying, sexual harassment, body shaming, pressure for underage drinking, and binge drinking… Each adult male coach leveraged the power imbalance between themselves and the young women athletes in their care in an attempt to achieve high performance results at the expense of athletes’ physical, psychological, and emotional well-being.”

The lawsuit alleges that El Sakkary bullied athletes, calling them degrading names including “stupid”, “brats” and “a bunch of princesses” and telling them they were “chubby” and “not attractive.” 

“Baher was also sexually inappropriate with athletes,” the claim says. “On multiple occasions, he met with athletes, including A.A., Katrina, and Steph, in his hotel room wearing only his underwear. During these meetings, he would sometimes hold a whiteboard over his genitals and force the athletes to stare at the whiteboard while he ostensibly talked about game plays.”

In October 2004, Monton and Valin’s parents complained to Oaten about Baher’s behaviour and submitted complaints to Heather Kaulbach, then-chief executive officer of WPC, but nothing changed, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit also details how Berthelette was fired by the organization in 2001 in response to athletes’ complaints and an external investigation of his behaviour and then re-hired two years later to coach the junior women’s team. By 2007, Berthelette was hired as a technical advisor and assistant coach for the senior women’s national team.

“Dan threatened violence against athletes and their loved ones,” the lawsuit says. “When athletes performed poorly, he warned them he would bring a shotgun or baseball bat to the pool to shoot or beat them. At practices, Dan made threats about harming athletes’ families if they didn’t perform in a satisfactory way.

“To cement his authority and reinforce the athletes’ belief that he would carry out these threats, Dan told the team graphic stories about his past violence and his affiliations with the mafia, Hell’s Angels, and dangerous gangster friends.

Berthelette, the lawsuit says, told athletes he wanted to sleep with them so he could “tell if they were lesbians or not,” and stood in a dining area during a tournament in Portugal in 2007 announcing which athletes were allowed to have dessert.

“On at least one occasion, he spiked an athlete’s drink with vodka,” the lawsuit said.

Berthelette was asked to leave the organization for the second time in 2011, according to the lawsuit.

Oaten, who is now the current men’s senior national team coach, is alleged to have pressured La Salle, then a member of the women’s senior national team, to sit through a practice in a loud and bright pool environment after she had suffered a concussion. The claim also details an incident during one training session in Hawaii after national team members asked for a water break. 

“He refused, saying, ‘There’s water all around you,’ and gesturing that the athletes could drink the pool water if they were thirsty,” the lawsuit says, adding that Oaten openly discussed his sex life and described his beauty standards with national team members.

Baker allegedly openly belittled and criticized athletes in front of others.

“He lined up the athletes in their bathing suits and ranked them in front of everyone based on their value to him and to the team,” the lawsuit says. “He would remind certain athletes of their low-ranking positions and openly warn them they were close to being cut from the team.”

In 2013, one year into Baker’s time as senior women’s national team coach, the team’s physiotherapist, Marie-Pier Fafard, began taking notes about Baker’s coaching.

“Guy called [Fafard] a traitor and told the athletes if they were in the wild west, we would settle this with guns,” the lawsuit said. “Marie-Pier’s note-taking came to Guy’s attention through an athlete, whom Guy praised for her loyalty. Guy told the team the athlete was a team player, and he thanked her for having his back. He then said Marie-Pier could no longer be trusted…” 

Fafard left the organization because of Baker’s alleged abusive practices, as did team psychologist Dr. Shaunna Taylor, assistant coach Johanne Begin, and some athletes, the lawsuit alleges.

After WPC hired sports psychologist and former Canadian Olympian Dr. Penny Werthner in 2013 to probe misconduct allegations against Baker, the coach allegedly learned of the investigation, met with athletes one on one and encouraged them to lie about the team’s training environment.

“Guy warned the athletes, including the plaintiffs, that they shared a “circle of trust” and if anyone broke it, he would know…,” the lawsuit said.

“Although Dr. Werthner recommended that WPC take action in relation to the complaint about Guy, WPC did not follow Dr. Werthner’s recommendations,” the lawsuit said Instead, the team was forced to continue travelling and training with Guy for many months after Dr. Werthner submitted her report to WPC.”

A year later, in the summer of 2014, WPC told athletes that Baker would not return as coach but did not provide any details. After athletes asked to see Werthner’s report, WPC’s executive director Martin Goulet refused, saying it was confidential.

WPC president Kathleen Dawson announced on Oct. 14 that Goulet was leaving the organization.

"With a strong sense of ethics, diligence and consistency, [Goulet] has guided the organization for almost a decade and leaves behind an impressive legacy," Dawson wrote in a statement at the time. 

The lawsuit also scrutinizes the behaviour of some national team support staff.

In 2013, Valin confided in WPC support staff member Danièle Sauvageau, the former Canadian women’s Olympic hockey team head coach, about Baker’s volatile outbursts and bullying, the lawsuit says.

“Steph told Danièle she hoped to be severely injured so she would not have to practice with Guy,” the lawsuit says. “Danièle did not intervene to protect Steph, nor did she connect Steph to psychological support to address Steph’s desire to be harmed.”

The claim also says senior women’s national team strength and conditioning coach Alain Delorme actively contributed to a toxic training environment by promoting “no filter Fridays,” during which he made sexual comments about women on the team and encouraged team members to make sexual, racist, and homophobic remarks.