‘We’re in crisis’: Safe sport advocate Allison Forsyth says feds must be preventative in tackling sexual abuse

WARNING: This article contains details that may affect those who have experienced sexual abuse or know someone affected by it.

Less than a week after Canada’s sport minister Pascale St-Onge announced a number of new measures to combat what she calls a crisis in the country, sexual abuse survivor-turned-safe sport advocate Allison Forsyth is questioning just how effective the measures will be.

St-Onge highlighted a number of steps Sport Canada is taking to begin the process of changing the country’s sport system, including changing the contribution agreements with national sport organizations (NSOs). That means there will be enhanced checks and balances and heightened accountability in place that will directly impact sport organizations and their funding.

Sport organizations receiving federal funding will have to meet specific governance, accountability and safe-sport standards.

While all of this looks good on paper, Forsyth worries it won’t translate into meaningful change quickly enough.

| Forsyth discusses her safe sport advocacy: 

‘If you’ve lived it, you know it’: Olympic skier sexually abused by coach discusses her safe sport advocacy

*WARNING: This article contains details that may affect those who have experienced sexual abuse or know someone affected by it.* Olympic skier and sexual abuse survivor Allison Forsyth shares her emotional journey though sport and the work she now does as a safe sport advocate.

“To be completely honest and frank, it’s been frustrating for me of late. If you’ve lived it, you know. If you are Kyle Beach, you know. If you are a Larry Nassar survivor, you know. If you’re myself, you know,” Forsyth told CBC Sports.

“And I wish I could say all the decisions being made right now are being made by people with lived experiences and survivors of abuse, yet they’re not. I’m not here to make anyone wrong for that. I believe there are a lot of very good people trying to help with this massive issue.”

Forsyth was an Olympic skier who competed at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City. Skiing at the highest level was her life and she was willing to do whatever it took to get to the pinnacle.

In her quest to be the best, Forsyth was confronted by a predator in the form of her coach. She was sexually abused by Alpine Canada coach Bertrand Charest in 1997 and 1998.

Charest was found guilty in 2017 on 37 sex-related charges stemming from the complaints of nine women who were between the ages of 12 and 18 at the time of the crimes.

He was sentenced to 12 years in prison and was later released on parole in 2019.

‘We need to be preventative’

It was around that time Forsyth began her work in the world of safe sport, wanting to be a vessel of change for those athletes coming after her. She was somewhat optimistic, but also skeptical, that the measures introduced at that point by then-Minister of Sport Kirsty Duncan, including a national toll-free helpline to address abuse in sport, would lead to tangible action.

Three years later, Forsyth has lost a lot of faith and says these new measures and the performative nature of the announcements feel all too similar to what happened a few short years ago.

“How are we going to learn from the last three years and do it differently this time? Back then, all I kept thinking was ‘this is not going to work.’ Because what the government has been focused on is dealing with the problem once it happens. We need to be preventative,” Forsyth said.

“This is not a problem that can take another three or four years. This is not a problem millions of dollars is going to solve overnight either. We’re in crisis,” Forsyth said.

| CBC Sports discusses new safe sport measures with sport minister St-Onge:

Canadian sport minister discusses new safe sport measures

CBC Sports reporter, Devin Heroux, speaks with Canada’s Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge about new safe sport measures introduced to combat what she calls a crisis in the country.

St-Onge told CBC Sports she is in fact focused on taking preventative measures and says the athlete’s voice is a critical piece in moving forward.

“I’m having conversations with athletes wherever I go. I’m really open and I want to hear their stories. I know it’s been a tough time for a lot of people,” St-Onge said.

“We need to break the culture of silence. Sport needs to break that culture of silence. I hope all the measures we’re taking help do this. I want to salute the courage these athletes had to speak out. That’s why we’re making changes.”

Forsyth is now a partner at an organization called ITP Sport — Canada’s first full service and programming safe sport agency. She’s been going coast-to-coast and working with athletes, coaches and officials at all levels of sport from grassroots clubs to universities and NSOs, trying to help them begin the process of creating healthy sport environments within their organizations.

| Forsyth advocates for increased awareness about sexual abuse in sports:

‘This needs to be an open conversation’

Allison Forsyth, former Olympic skier, says there’s a need for increased awareness when it comes to sexual abuse in sport.

“I will always applaud any attention put on this issue but want to understand the plan of action and timeline more specifically to be able to say I have faith,” she said.

The weight of this work is lofty and emotional for Forsyth.

“I talk to victims and survivors every single day. Who cares if we make the NHL or we go to the Olympics? It does not guarantee happiness. It does not guarantee that you’re healthy. We need to flip the script on what we deem success in our sport culture,” she said.

“I have no problem sharing my abuse. I believe that’s the best way for people to learn. I become a safe space for people to share their stories. That’s what I’ve become for people. It’s a gift to hold space.”

But it comes with a human toll, at times the residue of abuse still haunting Forsyth as she tries to help others deal with their own trauma in a broken Canadian sports system.

“This is my life. I gave up everything to work in this space,” she said, fighting back tears.

“I want my kids to try and make the national junior hockey team and not worry about abuse problems with their coaches. I want my friends who I talk to every day to go to Paris 2024 as happy and healthy, mentally sound and physically prepared athletes. And it’s very hard.

“Sometimes I think there’s a very small group of us that are on an island and we just need help and we need people to stand up and say it’s not OK anymore.”

Support is available for anyone who has been sexually assaulted. You can access crisis lines and local support services through this Government of Canada website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. ​​If you’re in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911. 

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