What’s Happening in Canada?

On October 1, 2020, Canada Artistic Swimming (CAS) closed its Montreal national team training centre until further notice amid investigation into abuse and harassment. This article will summarize and aggregate all news coverage related to it.
It will be updated regularly as the situation evolves. Last update: April 12, 2021 (Current Chronology).

 

Current Chronology

As noted above, the Canadian federation closed its Montreal national team training centre amidst allegations of abuse and harassment. The independent investigation was prompted by a series of emails complaining of incidents of abuse the organization was unwilling to recognize. The emails allege that harassment and abuse has been occurring since January 2019.

The French Canadian press revealed that the last straw occurred a few days prior, after an incident involving head coach Gabor Szauder. Some swimmers complained to the federation they heard offensive comments about the Black, LGBTQ and Muslim communities.

The emails, also coming from club coaches and staff, also targeted the federation for promoting a culture of fear and forcing the athletes to stay quiet on the matter. Overall, the allegations are targeting the head coach, the federation, and its leadership. The athletes are for now training separately in clubs.

“CAS staff immediately looked into the situation, and felt the best decision was to suspend training at the Institut National du Sport (INS) until a thorough review could be conducted. CAS has brought in a third-party, independent person to carry out this review, which is currently underway.

It is our hope that at its conclusion we will have a much better understanding of what issues led to this situation, how we can work together to resolve those issues, and map out a path to move forward. It is our goal that our athletes will define what they need from us and from their training environment and we will work together to implement solutions to achieve it.”

Four current Canadian artistic swimmers spoke up anonymously about the abuse allegations against head coach Gabor Szauder. They shared some of their experiences, the inappropriate comments they heard, as well as the deafening silence from the federation on the situation up until now.
“It’s been going on for too long within that organization,” said Caroline. “There is a toxic environment in artistic swimming.”

“There’s been times when he’s yelled at girls to the point that they have panic attacks in the pool, in the gym,” Patricia said. “And then he will continue to yell at them and harass them and swear at them. He will call them babies and tell them to stop crying, to compose themselves.”

Recently retired national team member Sion Ormond also shared her story, and her reasons for leaving.

“He said: ‘Sion, zip up your hoodie before I get too excited,” Ormond said. “It was in front of multiple athletes. This is a 47-year-old man. I knew how inappropriate that comment was, that it never should’ve been said and I was scared. I was afraid of what my dad would either say or do. I was afraid he would get involved and I would be perceived as a troublemaker.”

The federation has released results of the independent review after complaints of harassment and a culture of fear in the team’s training centre in Montreal. It included interviews with all 18 national team athletes, 10 members of the coaching and support staff, and other stakeholders for a total of 35 interviewees.

The review found no instances of physical abuse, sexual abuse or hazing. However, the review found “experiences of psychological abuse, bullying, neglect, sexual harassment, discrimination, and an overall culture of fear. Sexual harassment in the form of misogynistic comments and behaviour, comments that were sexual in nature, and offensive comments was found to be the most prevalent of the above items, along with discrimination which took the form of racial comments, comments based on religious beliefs, and comments based on gender identity.”

The recommendations include improving coach and support staff’s commitment to reporting mechanisms, mental health awareness and education, diversity and inclusion awareness and education, harassment and bullying prevention, and coach education around respectful communication.

“One of the main concerns that arose from the interviews is a clear disconnect between the coaching and [support] staff, and athletes on the assessment of the safe sport environment within CAS. There is a breakdown in communication and evident mistrust between the stakeholders in the program.”

The federation says it wants to build a safer space for athletes and a better culture, and will implement new regulations all the way to the rec and club levels. CAS has not announced a return date for the national team.

The full report is available here.

The Canadian federation has announced that Gabor Szauder will keep his position as head coach.

The article linked above specified that the external firm ITP Sport’s mandate was “not to deal with complaints or to investigate allegations brought to its attention, but rather to recommend improvements to Safe Sport based on the analysis of the current practices of the National Artistic Swimming team.”

Journalists Diane Sauvé et Jacinthe Taillon confronted Canada Artistic Swimming CEO Jackie Buckingham on the review and what the federation plans to do (or not) about it.  The English translation is available here.

Some of the anonymous swimmers who spoke up a few weeks ago, as well as Sylvie Fréchette, Canadian club coaches and other sports professionals are outraged at CAS’ “action plan,” and are criticizing Buckingham’s statements. All argue the athletes are not protected, that their call for help went unanswered, and that the federation’s response is shameful.

The English version of the article is available here.

A petition aimed at Canada’s Minister of Sport and the Canadian Olympic Committee, among others, has started. Named ‘Canada Artistic Swimming: Immediate Action For Safe Training Environment’, it urges for further and more appropriate action from the federation.

  • February 1, 2021 – Team Resumed Training

The national team has returned to training in mid-January at the Institut National du Sport (INS) in Montréal.

A lawsuit was filed in Montreal by five former elite swimmers: Gabrielle Boisvert, Gabriella Brisson, Chloé Isaac, Sion Ormond, and Erin Willson. They allege they have been the victims of psychological abuse, neglect and sexual and racial harassment by current and former coaches and staff of Canada Artistic Swimming (CAS). The athletes discuss their personal experiences under coaches Julie Sauvé (2009-2012), Meng Chen (2012-2017), Leslie Sproule (2017-2018) and Gabor Szauder, head coach since 2018.

The five former swimmers held a virtual press conference today. You can listen to their testimonials and download the replay here. The federation has released an official statement shortly thereafter.

“There are problems in our sport and many steps have been taken over the years to address those that have been brought to our attention. Following the testimonies received recently, we understand that this was not enough and we sincerely apologize for it.”

Canada Artistic Swimming (CAS) has provisionally suspended two coaches, Meng Chen and Leslie Sproule, targeted by allegations of abuse and neglect in the class action lawsuit against the federation filed on March 9. National team head coach Gabor Szauder is not suspended but is under investigation.

Current national team athlete Cassandra Winkelaar revealed she was one of the five athletes to speak up back in November. She has decided to get out of anonymity to further denounce the alleged toxic environment at the national team training center. Winkelaar has not returned to training in January, and decided to stay at home in Calgary.

Head coach Gabor Szauder is taking a personal leave pending the outcome of a discipline panel hearing in the aftermath of complaints from athletes: “The organization says the country’s governing body for the sport and Szauder mutually agreed Monday that the situation had become too difficult to manage for the team and coach.”

 

 

Related Stories

  • A few former national team athletes shared their own stories of alleged abuse and harassment while on the national team over the last decade: Janelle Ball (2012-2017), Gabriella Brisson (2013-2017), Marie-Lou Morin (2009-2017), Erin Willson (2007-2012). Former high-level artistic swimmer Genevieve Peel also shared her story on her blog. A new Instagram account @mental_abuse_nac was also created for swimmers to share their experiences anonymously.
  • October 6CBC Listen‘s Sabrina Marandola interviewed Erin Willson and Emily Sudermann on the story.
  • October 20 – 1992 Olympic champion and Canadian synchro icon Sylvie Fréchette was interviewed for the Journal de Montréal. She admitted that for athletes to stand up and speak out less than one year away from the Olympics can only show how much pain and suffering must be happening. She also urges for major changes within the federation and in the sport’s culture itself: “What I regret is that complaints are filed over and over again, and the same people are still in place without even feeling a change. Culture must change to avoid this same problem facing us in four years. We have to get to the bottom of things and demand answers. We can’t go on like this anymore.”
  • October 20Marie-Lou Morin talks about the weight shaming issues rampant in the sport, developing an eating disorder, as well the deep-rooted cultural problem within the Canadian federation.
  • October 20Genevieve Peele, Gabriella Brisson, and Marie-Lou Morin discuss in more details their experiences with abuse, harassment, weight shaming, and belittling as athletes, and the cover-ups from the federation when they brought their issues to its attention.
  • October 22Fréchette also did a radio interview in French for 91.9 Sports Canada. She reiterates the need for a cultural shift in the sport, and for a more nurturing and respectful way of coaching at the elite level.
  • November 4 – The Slovak press picked up the story. The article alleges that Szauder’s behavior was very much the same during his time at the head of Slovakia’s team from 2013 to 2018. It includes many elite athletes quitting en masse as well as reports of inappropriate behavior and of perpetuating a culture of fear. It also claims that the Slovak federation knew of these accusations and swept the issue under the rug.
  • November 5 – Another article was published in the Slovak press on the ordeals of Viktoria Reichova and Natalia Pivarciova under Szauder’s tenure as a head coach.
  • November 11 – Anton Siekel, president of the Slovak Olympic Committee discussed his involvement and support during the Reichova’s CAS trial. He argues that “Mr. Szauder’s behavior was and is inadmissible. Those who bully athletes should not be involved in sport. Violence or harassment simply has no place in it and must end.”
  • March 9 – The New York Times published a very extensive and comprehensive story on current and new abuse allegations in the world of artistic swimming.
  • March 10Sylvie Fréchette regrets having stayed silent for so long, and offers her support to the athletes speaking up.
  • March 15Sylvie Fréchette added her voice to the five women suing the federation and spoke about the situation on a variety of talk shows. She appeared on Salut Bonjour, and was joined by Gabrielle Boisvert and B2ten’s co-founder Dominick Gauthier on Tout Le Monde en Parle (Small segment of the chat also available here). B2ten is a privately funded organization that supports Canadian Olympic athletes and seeks to positively impact the sport system.
  • March 19 – Quebec Artistic Swimming has publicly announced its support towards the five athletes taking legal action. The open letter was also co-signed by Sports Québec, Sport’Aide and Égale Action.

 

In the Archives

  • Szauder seemingly faced accusations of harassment in 2010 during his tenure as Hungary’s head coach. The federation however did not follow suit.
  • The Viktoria Reichova case started in 2017 as Szauder served as head coach in Slovakia. Reichova had been suspended from the national team. She took her case went all the way up to the Court of Arbitration for Sport when unable to solve internally with the federation. It ruled in her favor, stating that there were several procedural irregularities during the course of the disciplinary actions taken against her.
  • In 2015, three complaints were filed to the Canadian federation on current assistant coach Karine Doré for alleged harassment, public humiliations, weight shaming, and inappropriate comments. A few weeks later, it was reported that Doré would keep her position as head coach of Montreal Synchro.

 

Article by Christina Marmet

Cover photo by Jeon Heon-Kyun/EPA

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