Harsh words for the Canadian government from both the Michigan judge that sentenced a former USA Gymnastics team doctor to life in prison in 2018, and from the most-decorated women’s tennis champion of all-time.
Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, who presided over Larry Nassar’s sexual assault trial, spoke Thursday during the University of New Haven’s 2023 Noble Purpose for Sports Integrity Award online ceremony.
The Liberal government was chosen for the Ignoble Purpose Award for demonstrating the worst principles in the sports world over the last year, because it has refused to call a public inquiry into abuse and corruption in Canadian sport. Runners-up were match-fixers in Balkan countries and the PGA Tour, for merging with the Saudi-backed LIV circuit despite the pleas of 9/11 victims’ families.
Aquilina recounted how she testified to a House of Commons committee last June and was disappointed that Canada had won an award in the same category as 2022 FIFA World Cup host Qatar.
“My plea for help, for action, for safety of all athletes fell on deaf ears,” Aquilina said. "I don't think we've seen as many athletes coming forward in any country united and calling for help, calling for an inquiry to uncover the reasons why abuse is so rampant in Canada. Yes, Canada, a country known internationally for being a safe place. But clearly, Canada is not a safe place for athletes. It is not a safe place for children competing in sport.”
She said that the Canadian government’s inaction means it "continues to act as co-conspirators in the abuse suffered by all athletes of all ages.”
“Safety is a human right. Safety is not a question mark. Safety is not to be ignored. And yet, Canada takes no action,” Aquilina said.
Declan Hill, the professor who heads the Connecticut university’s Sports Integrity Centre, called it very difficult to listen to Aquilina’s speech because he is Canadian, but “it's even more difficult to realize that every syllable of what you speak is true.”
In late July, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shuffled Pascale St-Onge out of the sport ministry and into Canadian Heritage, where she spearheads the government’s politically fraught Online News Act. During her tenure as sport minister, St-Onge temporarily froze funding for high-profile organizations facing abuse allegations, such as Hockey Canada, and introduced reforms, including the new Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner. But she stopped short of calling a public inquiry.
Delta MP Carla Qualtrough returned as sport minister in late July. The lawyer and former Paralympic swimmer had the role during the first half of Trudeau’s first term in office.
In a September interview with the Canadian Press, Qualtrough was noncommittal about an inquiry but conceded that “trust in sport leaders, trust in sports organizations has eroded and there is a lack of confidence in the system.”
Meanwhile, Czech-born tennis legend Martina Navratilova slammed the Canadian government in her Noble Purpose Award acceptance speech. Even while battling cancer earlier this year, Navratilova remained an active campaigner for equal pay, protection from abuse, inclusivity for gay and lesbian athletes, and to keep male-born athletes out of women and girls’ sports competitions.
“You know, it's funny that Canada got this award, for the ignoble award, for denying victims of sexual abuse to speak out in athletics, and at the same time, putting trans-women rights ahead of women athletes,” Navratilova said.
In her acceptance speech, Navratilova emphatically said that “we are not anti-trans, we are pro-women, pro-sports, pro-fairness, pro-equality. And we must find a way where everybody is welcome, but not at the cost of fairness to women and girls.”
Runners-up were Kenyan activist Malcolm Bidali, who exposed labour abuses in Qatar before the World Cup, and Vinicius Junior, the Brazilian-born Real Madrid player and anti-racism advocate.
A year ago, the inaugural winner was a Canadian — University of Western Ontario sports law professor Richard McLaren, who investigated Russia’s state-sponsored sports doping.