Linking Arms Against Power Imbalance and Abuse in Sport: Rowing Canada Aviron

rowing hocr 2022

Members of Rowing Canada Aviron including former board members, clubs, universities, provinces, associations, and national team athletes and alumni recently mobilized their collective voice and rights to enact change across their national sport organization.

After a series of abuse and negligence claims beginning in 2017 and exposed in Rubin Thomlinson’s Independent Review, 3 directors of the RCA Board resigned citing values misalignment. Twenty-one member clubs and universities (20% of the membership) acted in accordance with Canada’s Not for Profit Act to requisition a special meeting of members and call for governance change.

Fittingly, the special meeting of members occurred on Pink Shirt Day – February 22nd 2023 – a day that marks a movement that began in Berwick, Nova Scotia initiated by a group of grade 12 student leaders who decided to stand up for a younger member of their community when he was bullied for wearing a pink shirt. Rather than resorting to violence or complaints, becoming bystanders, or turning to the authorities for help, all of which were sure to lead them into a political maze of policies, position, and power, they chose to link arms, step up, and support the bullied. The next day, they all showed up to school wearing pink shirts. Pretty tough to bully a whole cohort of grade 12s. In donning pink shirts and linking arms with the abused, they effectively diluted any power the bullies may have held.

The story of Pink Shirt Day is the best bystander training around! We can only balance power by overwhelming or dissolving power imbalance and abuse.

On the surface, this act of solidarity within the rowing community seemed to have achieved neither. After a highly charged zoom meeting of almost 300 participants, the vote was 152-112 in favour of the status quo with 108/131 member clubs, universities, provinces, and associations voting. However, it became clear in the aftermath that this was only the beginning. National Team athlete leaders like the Canadian women’s soccer team, Bobsled Skeleton, Rugby, and Gymnastics Canada, and provincial presidents for Soccer, Hockey, and Gymnastics, are linking arms against inequity, abuse, and corruption and insisting on values based leadership in sport.

The lights are on. Sport is evolving, voices are amplifying, there are other ways to share information, and increasing efforts to uphold human rights and core values in sport.

Leading up to and during the RCA Special Meeting of Members, complicating factors included the usual characters: obfuscation and delays, control of communication channels, false narratives and division, and an unabashed failure to uphold the organization’s bylaws by refusing to share the members’ information (bylaw 5.5) or allow members to be heard during the meeting (bylaw 7.4).

The Rowing Canada Aviron Board made a last minute call to ‘mediate’ with a group of alumni – on Family Day no less; an empty offer in the 11th hour extended to the wrong group. Alumni advocates who were representing member rights and coordinating member actions were in no position to negotiate on behalf of the member clubs; but of course such a show of concession by the current leadership was spun as ‘one last attempt to reason with the rebellious.’

The special meeting of members quickly devolved into an ironic display of the power imbalance and abuse activated members sought to dissolve.

The special meeting of ‘members’ saw few members in fact playing a role. Board members dominated the first 50 minutes sharing personal resumes and lobbing personal attacks. Despite promising to hire a parliamentarian to ensure procedural fairness, the current Board foisted the chair role upon the athlete director, who, despite her noble attempts to facilitate and some off-camera coaching from the CEO, was caught on a hot mic and muted the athletes she was elected to represent. Questions were moderated by the ‘RCA administrator’ (CEO) and rebuttals to directors’ offside and defamatory statements were explicitly disallowed, once again contravening the Bylaws and the Act.

Advocates for change afterward recognized their missteps and naivete; compelled by morality, equity, and safety, they came in too hot, frightening those who did not have all the information, who feared conflict and uncertainty, and who ironically worried about repercussions from the current leadership. Trusting in the process, advocates were caught off guard when the rules of engagement were suddenly altered or ignored. However, a near drowning Jan 9th of a national team athlete revealed further lack of care, policy, oversight, and accountability on the part of the CEO and Board and heightened the imperative for change.

Our efforts to create a sport founded on trust and transparency are hindered by PR: loyalty to personal relationships and reputation over principled and professional responsibilities. 

The current sport leadership conveniently frames sport as caught in a false divide between grassroots and high performance; the two ‘sides’ see themselves at odds, distracted from the corruption within their governing bodies by competing for attention and resources, when in fact they are both essential and interdependent partners in sport and the true owners of the organization.

With the advent of an evolved safe sport Universal Code and investigative process in the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner, the potential to address abuse, corruption, and negligence in a more comprehensive, trauma informed manner offers hope to those who have witnessed harm.

As an advocate for standards of excellence in sport, I see the greatest and most enduring danger in acquiescence: the people who voted in favour of change cannot be left to believe they are powerless, those who were too afraid to vote cannot be left to believe things are hopeless, and those who voted in favour of the status quo cannot be left to believe they have impunity.

The death of sport is power imbalance and abuse – but perhaps even more destructive is the fearful human tendency toward bystanding, collusion, and conformity.

Leadership in sport is currently bottom up. Young, values-based leaders will continue to build the sport they need and want for human and social excellence and in so doing will fill the vacuum of leadership that currently exists across most of the sport landscape in Canada. Eventually, governance models that protect safety over control, and privilege human and social development over status, will foster thriving sport organizations. Sport leaders who can uphold the same accountability and partnership we demand of our athletes will build high performing organizations rather than cultures of compliance and control.

Appropriately, the movement for true sport began with the voices of our youth and can only be sustained by aligning with our youth. 

While the pull toward status quo in sport is strong, the risk of losing sport altogether is stronger. Voting for the status quo in sport threatens all that sport embodies – participation is plummeting astronomically and only 14% of Canadians think that sport leaders are doing an excellent job at delivering a positive sport experience. The recent Hockey Canada case illustrated well the choice we face: in remaining loyal to the status quo, Skinner promised to ‘keep the lights on‘ – small comfort when in the process we are guaranteed to lose basic human rights, safety, and integrity. 

Leadership change can feel like we risk losing everything. But, we have already lost so much in sport. With leadership change, there’s a chance we won’t lose sport as a whole.  

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