Oct 27, 2021
'Tipping point' from national women’s team spurs Canada Soccer to investigate coach
Former players who spoke out about Bob Birarda say they’re pleasantly surprised the Canadian women’s team has taken a stand, asking the federation to conduct an independent and transparent investigation into former soccer coach currently facing nine sex-related charges in British Columbia court.
Ciara McCormack, the retired soccer player who was the first to publicly accuse a former coach with the Canadian national program of inappropriate conduct, says she was pleasantly surprised to hear that the Canadian women’s national team took a stand against Canada Soccer.
On Friday, the players sent a letter to the governing body of soccer in the country, asking the federation to help fight a culture of abuse and silence in sports. Canada Soccer, the governing body of the sport in this country, pledged that commitment in a statement released on Saturday.
“It's been a very long road. But it does feel like we've hit a tipping point, and I'm more than happy to add as many people onto the bandwagon that want to join in, because there is power in numbers,” McCormack told TSN earlier this week.
McCormack first brought attention to Bob Birarda, the former coach for the Canadian women’s under-20 team and the Vancouver Whitecaps women’s team, in a blog post in 2019. Birarda is currently facing nine sex-related charges in British Columbia court: six counts of sexual exploitation, two counts of sexual assault, and one count of child luring.
He is expected to appear in court on Thursday after proceedings against him were postponed for a ninth time earlier this month.
The letter of demands sent Friday by the national team includes an independent and transparent investigation into Birarda, as well as an apology “to those who have been victimized while playing the sport they love.”
Canada Soccer released a statement on Saturday, before the Canadians were set to play New Zealand to kick off the team’s Celebration Tour, saying that the federation stands with the players and that it will meet all three demands, including implementing measures to better protect players in the future.
A spokesperson for Canada Soccer said Tuesday that the promised investigation into Birarda is “in progress,” but no further details are available at this point.
Eden Hingwing, another former player for both the Whitecaps and national under-20 team who has also been outspoken on social media against Birarda and Canada Soccer, expressed gratitude to the national team for taking a stand.
“I would say initially my reaction is relief that finally they're being vocal about things that are very important that go beyond just winning a soccer game,” Hingwing told TSN. “Systemic change, I think, across all sports, is well overdue, and to use their platform to bring attention to that and to not only mention what happened in 2008, and opening that investigation, but ensuring safe sport for future players – I think it’s the bigger and more important message that needs to be heard.”
Birarda was let go as coach of both the Whitecaps and Canadian under-20 team in October 2008. In a statement at the time, Canada Soccer described the decision as a mutual parting of ways. Months later, Birarda was coaching girls at a youth club in British Columbia.
While McCormack says she is grateful that the situation is finally getting attention, she admits being frustrated that it took Canada Soccer two years to respond.
“In terms of actual tangible solutions coming from it, I feel like I've been in the space long enough now, the last couple years that I'm pretty jaded,” she said. “I guess I'm not very hopeful in the sense of any real solutions that are going to really benefit players coming out of anything to do with Canada Soccer.”
Following McCormack’s blog post in 2019, 13 players from the under-20 team, including Hingwing, released a statement with more details about Birarda’s alleged behaviour.
“We wanted an independent investigation, and that the findings of those investigations made public,” said Hingwing. “We asked for that from Canada Soccer, and it was deafening silence.”
When asked why Canada Soccer did not acknowledge the request from the 13 players in 2019, a spokesperson for the federation said that Canada Soccer “immediately responded” to the situation when it was brought to their attention in 2008.
“At the conclusion of that investigation, the coach was no longer part of Canada Soccer,” the spokesperson said, adding that Birarda has not had his coaching licence with Canada Soccer since 2011.
The spokesperson also pointed to Canada Soccer’s implementation of its Safe Sport Roster program in 2019, which includes a whistleblower policy and hotline, as well as mandatory certification requirements for every coach in the country to undergo training for issues that include respect in sport training.
The statement from the Canadian players comes at a time when there appears to be a reckoning in women’s soccer. The National Women’s Soccer League has been rocked by allegations of abuse, and more accusations have come from Australia and Venezuela.
“I do think players are the ones with the platforms,” said McCormack. “They're the ones with the followers. They're the ones that everybody is watching. I think it's awesome that there's been this sort of influx of activism over the last couple of years with athletes really using their platform for positive change.”
The Canadian players are beginning to recognize the power they hold, especially after winning gold at the Tokyo Olympics.
“Our voice carries a unique weight right now. We want to make the most of it,” captain Christine Sinclair said after Saturday’s game.
For Hingwing, the bigger issue at hand is the culture of fear that still exists inside sports.
“I think we should observe and be aware that it took a gold medal for them to be able to make this statement,” she said. “Which isn't me trying to criticize them and the choices they're making, but more the environment where you don't feel like you can have a voice until you have really proven that you are invaluable, and they're so scared to lose you that now maybe they're going to listen.”
Both Hingwing and McCormack would like to see FIFA take more action. Victor Montagliani, a current vice president with FIFA, was vice president of Canada Soccer at the time of the 2008 allegations, with specific responsibility for the national teams. He later became president of Canada Soccer from 2012 to 2017.
FIFA recently announced it has opened an investigation following the allegations in the NWSL involving former coach Paul Riley.
“This isn't a Canada Soccer issue. It's happening in other countries,” said Hingwing. “I do think FIFA should be involved… to protect athletes and to prevent this from happening anywhere, ever again.
“I think sports is behind and needs to catch up for how vulnerable athletes are to their coaches, their staff, how hard they've worked since they were kids to get these opportunities. I find it devastating that people can be taken advantage of in pursuing their dreams.”
Despite signs of progress, Hingwing knows the fight is far from over.
“Part of me is a pessimist who feels like I need to stay on this, I need to be aware, and I can't really let my guard down just yet, because nothing has given me the sense of relief that my kids, should they experience this, will be protected,” she said.
Hingwing also made sure to acknowledge the tireless work of her former teammate who started this conversation two years ago.
“I'm very happy, especially for someone like Ciara that has been in the trenches. I don't know where she finds her fight or her energy,” she said. “But what she has sacrificed to make sure that this conversation didn't stop I think should be recognized by anyone who's paying attention today – they should recognize the weight that she pulled to get to this point.”
“I am just so grateful now because it's been exhausting. It's impacted my life in so many ways,” said McCormack. “But for me at this point, it’s just looking forward, and just hoping that this is a sign that things are moving in a direction that's really going to change things.
“That's the one conclusion I've come to from being so deep in this space the last couple of years is that change is going to come from the players. It’s not going to come from the organizations. It’s going to come from that collective.”