Skip to content

Carla Qualtrough inherits safe-sport crisis upon return as federal sports minister

Federal sports minister Carla Qualtrough says she knows what's required to solve Canada's safe-sport crisis. The how is still a work in progress.
Federal sports minister Carla Qualtrough says she knows what needs to happen to resolve Canada's safe-sport crisis. The how is still a work in progress. Qualtrough greets players during a training session at the FIFA Women's World Cup in Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, July 30, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Scott Barbour

Federal sports minister Carla Qualtrough says she knows what's required to solve Canada's safe-sport crisis. The how is still a work in progress.

The Delta-MP was re-appointed sports minister this summer eight years after she was first assigned the portfolio in 2015.

The lawyer and visually-impaired former Paralympic swimmer moved onto other cabinet positions after two years in sports. 

Qualtrough returns to the file a more seasoned cabinet minister, and amid what her predecessor Pascale St-Onge has called a safe-sport crisis.

"I've come back to this position at a time of significant turmoil within the sport system," Qualtrough told The Canadian Press on Thursday. "Trust in sport leaders, trust in sport organizations has eroded and there's a lack of confidence in the system."

Two parliamentary committees have heard testimony in recent months from tearful athletes describing sexual, physical and verbal abuse they've experienced pursuing their sport, and their fears of retribution if reported to their organizational leaders.

Heads of national sport organizations have been called on the carpet by Heritage and Status of Women committees and grilled over their leadership. Hockey Canada, Gymnastics Canada and Canada Soccer were among them.

Qualtrough will speak Friday in Calgary at Hockey Canada's "Beyond The Boards Summit" which will tackle toxic masculinity.

During her first weeks back in the sports ministry, Qualtrough says she's read the committees' testimonies and spoken with abuse survivors, athletes, parents, experts, national sports organizations and advocates.

"What I've heard very clearly is about the need for systemic change within sport, that our system isn't sufficiently protecting our kids," she said. "It's not sufficiently holding leaders and organizations to account, and that culture change is needed."

Before St-Onge shifted to Heritage minister, she introduced in May a slate of sport reforms that included 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.

"There's a lot going on. There's a lot more work to be done," Qualtrough said.

"There's been leadership changes. There's been turnover on boards. There's been the creation of positions within organizations that focus on safe sport. All good, but not good enough yet."

The Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner (OSIC), which is designed to be an independent complaint and reporting mechanism for athletes, has operated for more than a year. 

All federally-funded sports organizations had to be signed on by April 1 lest they lose their funding, with 86 bodies having done so. 

Another deadline set for national sport organizations is adopting by April 2025 a governance code that sets target athlete representation and diversity on boards of directors, as well as term limits and transparency requirements.

"I'd say there's a little bit more work to do on that governance code to make it a little stronger," Qualtrough said. "I'd like to see some stronger wording."

The Canadian taxpayer is the biggest funder of high-performance sport at over $200 million annually. 

Own The Podium, established before the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C., to help get the host country on the podium, makes funding recommendations to allocate roughly $70 million of that to NSOs based on medal potential.

"For the Government of Canada, we certainly need to get our own house in order. We need to look at our funding model," Qualtrough said. 

"We need to better align our high-performance objectives with the sport we want for our kids in this country. Winning at all costs isn't really winning at all."

As her predecessor did, Qualtrough hears calls for a national inquiry into sport. 

She was a young lawyer and athlete during Canada's Dubin Inquiry into the use of performance-enhancing drugs following the 1988 Olympic Games. 

The Dubin inquiry took 19 months from the start until Charles Dubin released his report in June 1990.

"I think we're in a different place than we were in Dubin," Qualtrough said.

"While I am committed to having some kind of formal process that's trauma-informed, that supports athlete survivors, that draws on outside experts who specialize in child protection or community policing or just outside the bubble of sport, I'd say the actual format of that process hasn't been finalized yet. 

"What we need to do is really crystallized for me, the how we're going to get there is, I would say, not yet. It's my top priority. This will not hang over Canadians for weeks or months. It will be very soon that we release the path forward on this."

While Qualtrough has yet to receive her ministerial mandate letter from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, she says her discussions with him made it clear that safer sport is her priority.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 7, 2023.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press