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McCormack, Da Silva Rondeau echo calls for a national judicial inquiry into sport

Canada's Myriam Da Silva from Chambly, Que. is greeted by the crowd as she leaves after her fight in the 69-kilogram boxing event at the Pan Am Games in Lima, Peru on Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019. Da Silva Rondeau and former Vancouver Whitecaps player Ciara McCormack are among the women testifying before members of Parliament today as the Standing Committee Status of Women continues its hearings on the safety of women and girls in sport.  THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

Soccer player Ciara McCormack says she struggled with depression and suicidal ideation in the decade after she and others reported the abusive behaviour of coach Bob Birarda.

"It was heavy, dark and everything felt hard. I hated returning to my hometown of Vancouver and I struggled to be around what I once loved the most, the sport of soccer," McCormack said, fighting back tears.

The former Vancouver Whitecaps player, along with Olympic boxer Myriam Da Silva Rondeau, gave emotional testimony Thursday before members of Parliament on the second day of the Standing Committee on the Status of Women's hearings on the safety of women and girls in sport.

All of the witnesses Thursday echoed last week's calls for a national investigation into sport. 

"The system requires wholesale cultural change. The only way to achieve this is through a national judicial inquiry," said Lorraine Lafreniere, the chief executive officer of the Coaching Association of Canada. "This is an issue of national importance, the baseline. An inquiry will create a public road map for united cultural change. We have seen similar mechanisms used around the world in dramatic change to address systemic safe sport."

Lafreniere added that she "witnessed the power" of the 11-month Dubin Inquiry into doping after the Ben Johnson scandal in 1988, which led to the establishment of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport. 

"The legacy of that inquiry is that Canada is a leading anti-doping nation," she said.  

Bloc Quebecois MP Andreanne Larouche tabled a motion last week following question period in the House of Commons asking the federal government to commit to a public inquiry into sport. The Liberals rejected the request.

McCormack, a board member of PFACAN, the first pro soccer player union in Canada, was the whistleblower against Birarda, who was recently sentenced to two years less a day for violating the "sexual integrity" of four players, three of whom were under 18 at the time of the offences, which occurred between 1988 and 2008. 

Her testimony Thursday recounted how she and a small group of her former teammates "collectively asked for help to get Birarda (who coached the Whitecaps and Canada's under-20 team) off the field over 30 times, to no avail."  

He was terminated in 2008, but it was presented by Canada Soccer and the Whitecaps as a mutual parting of ways, McCormack said, which allowed him to continue coaching teenaged girls for another 11 years. 

He was finally suspended from coaching the day after McCormack published a blog in 2019 entitled, "A Horrific Canadian Soccer Story, the Story No One Wants to Listen to But Everyone Needs to Hear."

"How do you move on when you know there is a predator having access to young girls? And how does one go about feeling mentally ok, living in a world where leaders are actively allowing this to happen?" McCormack said Thursday. 

"When I hit 'publish' at 8 am, Monday, February 25, 2019, I was exhausted, terrified, and alone, broken from a system that I've since learned was designed to break me, forcing me to choose between my own safety as a whistleblower and the safety of the teenage players Birarda remained on the field with."

Da Silva Rondeau, who maintained a top-10 world ranking throughout her career, spoke about being forced to leave her coach and centralize for training in order to receive Sport Canada funding (carding). She described a toxic environment, culminating in the Tokyo Olympics.  

"(Tokyo) should have been one of my most memorable experiences," she said. "The only memory that I have left is this one: a video posted on social media by the new coach after my performance. In that video, after my fight, he mentioned that I had not lived up to his expectations, that it made him uncomfortable, and that I had not seized the opportunity to collect the medal that my country has been missing for 30 years. And that was extremely embarrassing for him and for Canada. 

"Even though I complained to the different authorities, the coach in that video was able to continue working without even apologizing to me. I was isolated from the rest of the group at practice. . . I was forced to leave. And I had to end my boxing career prematurely for obvious mental health reasons." 

Da Silva Rondeau was one of 121 boxers, including three-time world champion Mary Spencer and 12-time national flyweight champion Mandy Bujold, who wrote an open letter to Sport Canada in May calling for the resignation of high-performance director Daniel Trepanier.

Four days later, Trepanier resigned.

"I was sued by the high-performance director following calling things out on social media . . . and I had to pay for lawyers out of pocket," Da Silva Rondeau said. "And so, it's very difficult when you think, 'Well, I'll share things publicly, but then we might be sued.'"

A judicial enquiry is crucial, she added, because "We're talking about building a system. And in order to build a system we need to work on something that is clean. We can't build on something that's dirty. We want to create something new."

Lafreniere also called for federal, provincial and territorial governments to join forces to create a national registry of predators and offenders.

"If there is no centralized registry or co-ordinated registries, then abusers and predators will continue to travel from sport to province to territory and to any role in sport which will set the stage for more abuse," she said. 

The status of women study comes after an outcry from hundreds of athletes in several sports such as gymnastics and bobsled and skeleton about the toxic environments in their national federations.

Earlier this week, the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage adopted a motion to summon all board meeting minutes, including in-camera meetings, since Jan. 1, 2018, from national sports organizations for gymnastics, soccer, rugby, skeleton/bobsleigh, swimming, and figure skating.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 1, 2022.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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