Skip to content

U.S. Judge Aquilina urges Sport Canada to heed gymnasts' call for investigation

TORONTO — Canadian gymnasts remain steadfast in their calls for an independent investigation into the toxic culture and maltreatment of athletes, and are angry they weren't provided a seat at the Canadian sport minister's recent roundtable.

TORONTO — Canadian gymnasts remain steadfast in their calls for an independent investigation into the toxic culture and maltreatment of athletes, and are angry they weren't provided a seat at the Canadian sport minister's recent roundtable.

A group of 71 gymnasts that wrote to Sport Canada a week ago has now grown to over 300 signatories, and earned the support of U.S. Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, who famously presided over the Larry Nassar sexual abuse case. 

And in a statement on Monday they questioned why Minister Pascale St-Onge excluded the "very athletes who brought forward countless cases of abuse in their sport."

St-Onge held an emergency roundtable on Thursday, calling the maltreatment in sport a "crisis." In her five months on the job, St-Onge said there've been allegations of either maltreatment, sexual abuse or misuse of funds levelled against at least eight national sport organizations.

In Monday's statement, the gymnasts said they had yet to receive any direct communication from the Sport Minister. 

"Dolefully, the very athletes who brought forward this crisis were not engaged, did not receive the official minutes of the meeting, nor has the Sport Minister reached out to the athlete leaders calling for change," they wrote. 

The gymnasts' plea for a third-party investigation has been heard outside Canada. 

Judge Aquilina, who sent Nassar, a U.S. gymnastics doctor, to jail for life after accusations of sexual assault from hundreds of women, recorded a video of support to the Canadians on Monday.

"I hear you, I see you, I support you, I'm listening, I stand with you," Aquilina said in the three-minute video. 

"You matter, your voice matters … you're not just speaking up for yourself, you're speaking up for all of those who cannot come forward," she said.

She urged Sport Canada and St-Onge to "yield to the call of athletes" and instigate a third-party investigation where all documents are turned over, and where athletes have a say and are involved in the process.

The gymnasts' open letter came a month after dozens of Canadian bobsled and skeleton athletes called for the resignations of their national sport organization's acting CEO and high performance director.

"Gymnasts should not be expected to sit idle in silence," Monday's letter said. "Our fellow gymnasts from the United States of America watched/experienced their leadership follow the same path; meetings were convened, headline wars waged, and athletes' cries were cast aside. American sport leaders and government refused to act. If not for the American gymnasts' strength and relentless calls for investigations and reforms, their abuse would have never been brought to light."

St-Onge said last week that she was accelerating the implementation of a safe-sport reporting mechanism, which will operate through the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada, and that it will be mandatory for all national sport organizations.

She vowed it will be operational by late spring.

"Zero tolerance is about being brave to expose the abuse. All of it," the gymnasts wrote in Monday's statement. "Zero tolerance is about allowing athletes to share their lived experiences to provide healing and closure and it is about bringing abusers to justice. It is horrendous that abusers and enablers remain active in Canadian gymnastics. Sport Canada and the Canadian government have an inherent duty of care to protect the rights, freedoms and safety of children, youth and elite athletes."

The gymnasts' original letter said there have been multiple complaints and even arrests for various forms of emotional, physical and sexual abuse.

Former Canadian women’s coach Dave Brubaker was banned for life by Gymnastics Canada in 2021 following an internal investigation. Brubaker was found not guilty of sexual assault and sexual exploitation in 2019 after being accused of sexually assaulting a young gymnast years ago. 

Brubaker denied the allegation.

His suspension remains in place.

Other coaches include Marcel Rene who received a lifetime suspension from Gymnastics Ontario in 2021 and Rima Nikishin who is currently serving a suspension by the Alberta Gymnastics Federation pending the investigation of complaints. The specific reasons for those two suspensions were never explained by either gymnastic association.

Former coach Michel Arsenault, who had been facing multiple counts of sexual assault and assault in connection with five former gymnasts in Montreal, was granted a stay of proceedings in 2021 after being suspended by Gymnastics Canada in 2017. 

Arsenault denied the accusations.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 4, 2022. 

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press