In wake of report, Canada Soccer committed to strengthening safe-sport culture, new secretary general says

Warning: This story contains graphic details that may be disturbing to some readers

Canada Soccer’s secretary general Earl Cochrane didn’t mince his words while reacting to a 125-page report completed by McLaren Global Sport Solutions, highlighting systemic issues relating to the culture and governance within the national sport organization 14 years ago.

The report was commissioned by Canada Soccer.

Cochrane says he understands fully what’s at stake moving forward when there are gaps in the organization’s framework.

“Everything we’re talking about involves real people and real lives. All of the decisions and mistakes have consequences. I acknowledge the impact all of these things have had on athletes. That’s the overarching thing here,” Cochrane told CBC Sports.

“We’re going to listen to what was said about us. What happened in 2008. But it’s important to recognize we’re not the same organization that we were back then.” 

Some of Cochrane’s best moments and friends in life have come through sport. He says in the current climate that love of sport for many has been eroding — something he takes personally and wants to change. 

“Sport has given me so much in my life. I grew up in a family with a single mom. Me, my brother, her. It gave me an extended family. Coaches were parental-like figures to me. The teammates I grew up with were like brothers,” Cochrane said. 

“That’s the world I grew up in. I owe a lot to sports. And I think quite frankly that’s what’s at stake here. We have responsibilities as governing bodies and leaders within those governing bodies to create environments like that.”

The independent report, released Thursday, looked into Canada Soccer’s handling of harassment allegations made against Bob Birarda in 2008 – he was the under-20 women’s coach at the time, as well as the Vancouver Whitecaps youth team coach. 

Birarda pleaded guilty in February to three counts of sexual assault and one count of sexual touching while in a position of authority. The charges stem over a 20-year time frame, from 1988 to 2008, and involve four teenage soccer players Birarda coached. A sentencing hearing is expected to resume in September. 

The report makes clear Canada Soccer “mishandled” the allegations and says the national sport organization was “described by many as being dysfunctional and inefficient,” with “significant leadership upheaval and transition at the highest levels” in 2007 and 2008.

Former Vancouver Whitecaps and Canada U-20 women’s soccer coach Bob Birarda is seen above in June after pleading guilty to sexual assault. An independent review completed Thursday showed that Canada Soccer mishandled initial allegations against Birarda. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Sweeping changes

Cochrane, who took over his new position just two weeks ago, says while Canada Soccer has made sweeping changes in the last 10 to 15 years in the wake of Birarda’s departure, there is still a lot of work to do around changing the organization’s culture. 

“The report makes it clear that the governance structure that was in place in 2008 was a problem. The way the organization conducted its business, it didn’t work,” he said. 

“What the organization has done since 2008 to the present day is significant. We went through some vitally important organizational reform in the two to three years after 2008.”

There are 38 recommendations that have been presented as a part of this review — ranging from player relation and governance to a whistleblower policy — and Cochrane says he’s wasting no time getting to work on those.

In the wake of Thursday’s report, Canada Soccer sent a letter to stakeholders, partners and family members, outlining what it says are critical steps to address safety concerns within the sport.

(Canada Soccer)

Canada Soccer is now bringing in ITP Sport and Recreation, Canada’s first and only Safe Sport consulting and program agency, to “get us where we want to be,” says Cochrane. 

“We are going to be leaders in this safe sport – through policy, practice, programs,” he added.

“In order to be that group that’s driving that discussion, we needed to surround ourselves with people who are experts. And that’s what we’ve done. We are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied with meeting standards.”

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Former Whitecaps player Ciara McCormack said she was “surprised” but “grateful” to learn former women’s soccer coach Bob Birarda was charged with multiple sex offences in December 2020. McCormack was among the first to publicly raise allegations of abuse on the part of Birarda. (She is not a complainant in the criminal case.)

Process of changing culture

ITP Sport and Recreation co-founder Allison Forsyth, who is a sexual abuse survivor in the Canadian sport system, has been called upon to help Canada Soccer begin the process of changing its culture.

Forsyth was an Olympic skier who competed at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City. She was confronted by a predator in the form of her coach.

Forsyth 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 will not rest until every soccer parent in this country understands exactly how their child will be protected on the field of play and how every coach understands how they are coaching in 2022,” Forsyth told CBC Sports.

Forsyth says they have already begun their work looking over the report and recommendations. She says over the next two weeks her team will put forward a 90-day action plan. 

“We’ll be scrutinizing the work. We will look at what they have done. And we will also level-up to a new expectation of what the organization needs to do in safe sport,” Forsyth said. 

“We’ll be reviewing what has happened in the last 15 years with a critical eye and we will be creating new programming. Every parent will be more confident with what I’m sharing by quarter one [of] 2023.”

Former Canadian Olympic skier Allison Forsyth says over the next two weeks her team will put forward a 90-day action plan (Chris Donovan/The Canadian Press)

Forsyth uniquely positioned to lead

Forsyth, who is a mother of three children, says she’s uniquely positioned to help Canada Soccer be leaders in safe sport. 

She says what is at the heart of her work, however, comes through the lens of being a victim. 

“It’s the only reason why I do this. It’s for victims of abuse. I ask for them to have faith in me. And I will do my very best day in and day out to represent any victim or potential victim,” Forsyth said. 

“Safe sport is essential. I should not and we should not have to convince organizations to use it. I want everyone to know that Canada Soccer came to us. We did not pitch or convince. They understand and truly believe that engaging with us will make a difference. They came to us. That’s critical.”

Cochrane, who has been with Canada Soccer in different roles since 2001 but was not with the organization in 2008, says Forsyth and ITP are one of few groups in Canada tackling this in an authentic way. 

“It was important to us, knowing there would be recommendations coming forward, to have people who have the ability to translate them. To understand what the world is like today. To embed them into our organizations,” Cochrane said. 

“I think we can be leaders in this country in this space and beyond. Have impact globally. Have people globally recognize what Canada Soccer has done to safeguard our sport. Allison believes that too.”

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Forsyth says she understands the urgency of this work – that each moment that passes there is the potential for predators to abuse athletes across Canada.

She knows that and has impressed upon Canada Soccer that fast action is crucial, especially in the current sports environment. 

“Canada Soccer is not waiting. I have all the confidence as a survivor and professional in this space that they are committed to make safe sport the ultimate goal for all the athletes,” Forsyth said. 

“Our role here is to get them to be the best in safe sport. I don’t take that responsibility lightly. We are committed to moving as fast as possible.”

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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