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Athletes wonder why Trudeau hasn’t called an inquiry into Canada’s sport system

North Vancouver's Ciara McCormack has accused Ottawa of 'silent complicity' for ignoring repeated calls to investigate corruption in Canada's sport system
File photo of Ciara McCormack, who grew up playing on the soccer fields of North Vancouver. She has since become one of the leaders of a movement pushing for safer sport environments

A professional soccer player from North Vancouver accused the federal Liberal government of “silent complicity” for ignoring repeated calls by Canadian athletes for a public inquiry into abuse and corruption in the sport system.

"I don't understand what's holding back a national inquiry, how can we cheer on our athletes if we're telling you that this is the reality of what it looks like, behind every single sport, province, gender?” Ciara McCormack said Monday before the House of Commons Canadian heritage committee.

“You just wonder, is she even watching, is the Minister of Sport watching, is the Prime Minister watching this? Whoever is making these decisions are they watching? Because it’s very much impacted our lives, far past our sporting careers, and it’s just disappointing and I just feel ashamed, honestly, to be Canadian, that this is the reality of what it means, and the response to, being a Canadian athlete.”

At the end of January, Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge said in a CBC interview that there needs to be multiple investigations instead of a single inquiry, because a federal inquiry would not address problems in provincial and community sport.

McCormack blew the whistle in early 2019 disgraced former national team coach Bob Birarda’s return to coaching teenage girls. Birarda was sentenced last November to almost 16 months in jail for three counts of sexual assault and one count of touching a young person for a sexual purpose, crimes that occurred between 1988 and 2008.

Former W-League Whitecap McCormack is in her first season with Treaty United FC in Ireland’s Women’s Premier Division. She said she is playing with the Limerick-based team because there is no women’s league in Canada and she has no faith in the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA).

It was McCormack’s second appearance at the House of Commons. She testified at the status of women committee in December.

Likewise for Andrea Neil, the former Whitecaps and senior national team player who appeared in four Women’s World Cups. Neil testified that a public inquiry is necessary to provide healing and justice to beleaguered athletes across sports.

“We need a national inquiry,” Neil said. “When the Ben Johnson steroid scandal rocked Canada, we responded by becoming a world leader on doping in sport. This is a pivotal moment for Canadian athletes, to be sure, but we can meet it with the wisdom and the compassion that has been missing from this all. We can transform this difficulty into a more ethical, healthy, dignified and effective way of administrating sports in our country.”

Neil called the CSA a monopoly not subject to proper oversight, with a culture of exploitation and lack of accountability.

“Our leaders are so deeply embedded in FIFA, an organization renowned for its sexism and corruption,” Neil said. “But with Canada about to play host to the World Cup, it behooves us to pay attention.”

Neil was referring to Victor Montagliani, the West Vancouverite who is president of FIFA’s North and Central American and Caribbean confederation, and Peter Montopoli, the chief operating officer of Canada’s FIFA 2026 organizing committee.

When Whitecaps and national team players complained to the CSA of Birarda’s sexual harassment in 2008, Montagliani was on the board and Montopoli the general secretary. Montopoli has not appeared before the committee. Montagliani downplayed his involvement in the matter when he testified March 31. Sports lawyer Richard McLaren’s July 2022 report, however, said Montagliani was involved in the organization’s cover-up that included the October 2008 news release announcing a “mutual decision to part ways” with Birarda.

“I can't help but wonder, will you force us to watch Montopoli and Montagliani take centre stage at the Canadian taxpayer-funded 2026 FIFA World Cup, despite the documented harm they have caused, or will this government step up and take a stand against their behaviour?” McCormack asked the committee.

McLaren concluded that the CSA’s failure to fire and discipline Birarda for his misconduct “afforded him the opportunity to continue coaching, putting other players at potential risk.” McCormack’s early 2019 blog post, “A Horrific Canadian Soccer Story – The Story No One Wants to Listen To, But Everyone Needs to Hear,” prompted dozens of players to demand a police investigation that led to charges against Birarda in late 2020.