Critics say ‘absolutely no change’ in Canada Soccer despite scandals

<span>Photograph: Christopher Hanewinckel/USA Today Sports</span>
Photograph: Christopher Hanewinckel/USA Today Sports

Testimony by newly elected Canada Soccer president Charmaine Crooks has been called “revisionist” by a former board member after her appearance in front of members of parliament investigating sexual misconduct within sport.

Crooks joined Concacaf president Victor Montagliani and other former Canada Soccer presidents and executives as they faced criticism from the Canadian parliament’s Heritage Committee for poor governance and failing to take allegations of abuse seriously.

Montagliani and former presidents Steve Reed and Nick Bontis provided testimony during months of hearings as the committee investigates abuse and accountability in Canadian sport. Concacaf, the governing body of soccer in the Caribbean and North and Central America, is led by Montagliani. Bontis was elected to its council earlier this year.

Related: ‘Tip of the iceberg’: why abuse in Canadian sport is worse than it seems

Crooks’s testimony focused on multiple issues, including her role as Canada Soccer vice-president in 2019 when allegations that Bob Birarda, a former national youth team coach, had sexually harassed players in 2008 became public. His subsequent departure was characterized as a mutual parting of ways, no mention was made of the allegations against him and he was given Canada Soccer’s “best wishes”. Birarda continued to work in women’s youth soccer and was later convicted of sexual offenses against players unrelated to his time with Canada Soccer.

The 2008 allegations were known at the highest levels of Canada Soccer – including by Montagliani and former general secretary Peter Montopoli, who is currently an executive with the 2026 World Cup organizing committee. Montagliani has previously cited legal advice as a reason for Canada Soccer’s failure to disclose the circumstances behind Birarda’s exit.

“What happened in the past was not perfect,” Crooks said during her appearance in May before Canada’s Heritage Committee.

The comments from Crooks, a Canada Soccer board member since 2013, come as a member of Canada’s 2008 Under-20 team under Birarda has revealed her own unsuccessful attempt to report the coach in 2019.

Eden Hingwing told the Guardian that in April 2019 she called a phone number publicized by Canada Soccer as its “whistleblower hotline”. The number – still used by Canada Soccer today – is a transcription service used by multiple companies and organizations for employees to file internal complaints.

A call center operator told Hingwing that details of her experience would be forwarded to Canada Soccer. Hingwing said the operator revealed she did not have any training in mental health and offered no resources or advice on how to deal with an abusive coach.

Canada Soccer’s website describes its “Whistleblower Hotline as “an independent, third-party operated mechanism put in place in 2017 to supplement the Code of Conduct and Ethics … Any violation of the code should be reported to”

The Guardian called the same number – still listed on the Canada Soccer website – and spoke with an operator who said the service was managed by a company called Confidence Line. Confidence Line is owned and operated by a corporate risk mitigation company called Xpera HRservices that among other services offers support to companies facing strike action.

Xpera HRservices is owned by SCM Insurance Services, another risk management company. The Confidence Line website claims the company “helps employees, contractors, and shareholders anonymously report wrongdoing, sensitive issues, or safety concerns within the workplace.”

The use of companies providing risk management services as part of the sexual abuse process – rather than a specialist trauma-informed counsellors – leaves Canada Soccer open to criticism that its focus is on protecting the organization from legal action rather than the protection of athletes.

When the Guardian asked if abusive behavior by a soccer coach could be reported through the service the operator said they had to check a dropdown menu on a computer to confirm if “Canada Soccer Association” was a customer. The operator said that they offered no counseling services to callers and that “our role is strictly to gather reports”.

The Guardian has seen an official transcript of the 2019 report made by Hingwing that alleges Birada acted with the intent of “targeting players for sexual relationships”. Birarda was described in the report made by Hingwing as a “sexual predator targeting vulnerable athletes”.

Hingwing told the interviewer she wanted Birarda’s coaching license to be permanently revoked and for Canada Soccer to investigate events from 2008 and interview all players involved. Canada Soccer formally suspended Birarda from coaching in 2022 following his guilty plea to multiple counts of sexual assault.

After making the initial report Hingwing she had to contact the hotline between 8am and 4pm if she wanted to get an update on her case. When Canada Soccer eventually responded to her report through the call center the player was told to contact local law enforcement in Vancouver.

“It takes a lot of courage for a scared teenager who is witnessing or experiencing abuse from a coach to come forward and call a whistleblower line,” said Hingwing. “I would feel very discouraged [if I was a teenager and] the helpline operator I am supposed to depend on is insensitive to the issue and simply transcribes my experience to pass on to the organization. I would not trust that I am in safe hands and would likely not follow up during the recommended three-to-five business day period, during school hours no less, to check on the status of my file.”

Hingwing subsequently contacted a whistleblower email address on Canada Soccer’s website and received a response four days later from a generic “ethics” email address at Canada Soccer. The response came from “an independent investigator with the Canada Soccer Association - Ethics Committee” who, after another phone interview, said the complaint would be sent to Reed, who was president of Canada Soccer at the time.

According to copies of emails seen by the Guardian, in mid-May 2019 Reed responded to the investigator saying he was on vacation. In June 2019, Hingwing received an email saying Reed would arrange a meeting to discuss “concerns” in July. The meeting never eventuated.

In her testimony to Canada’s Heritage Committee this month, Crooks claimed that when the board learned in 2019 of allegations against Birarda “one thing that was done immediately” was to ask a board member with “appropriate experience” to reach out to former members of the U-20 national team.

Canada Soccer did not respond to a request for clarification on who the board member was, what specific tasks they were given, and if the tasks were included in board minutes.

“It is interesting how memory is quite revisionist,” said Leanne Nicolle, who told the Guardian she is the board member Crooks referred to in her testimony. “I have a very different perspective on how that went down.”

Nicolle was a Canada Soccer board member from 2017 to 2020 and has also been executive director of the Canadian Olympic Foundation.

“I was trying to get Canada Soccer to recognize what had happened to these women,” Nicolle said. “I believed them and really felt that they had been dismissed by Canada Soccer. In my attempts to bring that to light, I would say [the board] was very attached to their legal position versus doing what was right.

“I was not assigned by the board to do this work as Ms Crooks articulated. I had a relationship with the players and I was very much advocating [for them], oftentimes on deaf ears. If I was assigned [to the role] why is it not in the minutes that I was assigned? It is nowhere in the minutes because it didn’t happen.”

Nicolle said she attempted multiple times to bring player concerns of abuse to the attention of the board but was ignored or shut down.

“I think at one point [Bontis] was watching a professional soccer game or overturning emails [on his computer]. He certainly wasn’t paying attention [to the discussion],” Nicolle said. “I was put in a room with a lawyer, the general secretary at the time Peter Montopoli, and the president Steve Reed in an attempt to make sure I abided by [Canada Soccer’s] legal perspective rather than a [moral] one.”

Nicolle added: “Their legal concerns were an admission of guilt. None of them seemed to recall who was in the room when [investigator] Anne Chopra delivered her report in 2008 despite the fact that I know Victor Montagliani and Peter Montopoli were in that room.”

Nicolle is referring to a report by a Canadian lawyer named Anne Chopra who in 2008 investigated harassment claims against Birarda by players. No written copy of the report is known to exist even though it formed the basis for Canada Soccer and Vancouver Whitecaps to abruptly sever ties with Birarda.

“They had no recollection of the details and no recollection of the Chopra report which I found very suspicious. After numerous attempts to get the report they continued to stand by the position that Canada Soccer was not liable or responsible [ for the events in 2008] and that they had parted ways and that they had done everything in their power to protect themselves.”

Canada Soccer did not respond to a request for comment on the existence of a written copy of the Anne Chopra report.

Montagliani appeared before the committee in March to answer questions about his time as head of Canada Soccer including how complaints against Birarda were handled.

Montagliani was asked if his management of Birarda’s departure from Canada Soccer in 2008 allowed “the legitimacy needed for sitting on Fifa and on Concacaf, or for managing the Fifa world championships [sic] to be held in 2026”.

He responded: “I was part of a committee of eight people who had two conference calls to make the decisions that were made. In 2008, nobody was aware. I was certainly not aware of anything Mr Birarda had done previously nor – to my knowledge – was our committee aware of it. By the looks of it, neither were the investigators. This didn’t, unfortunately, come forward until the victims came forward in 2019-20, which led to the police being engaged and, ultimately, Mr Birarda being charged.”

In an extraordinary scene during Reed’s testimony in late April, the committee stopped proceedings after 30 minutes to have the former Canada Soccer president take an oath affirming he was telling the truth. Questions to Reed had focused on how Birarda was hired by a well-known amateur youth club after leaving his roles with the national team and Vancouver Whitecaps after allegations of sexual harassment.

Earlier testimony from Andrea Neil, a former player and assistant coach with the national team, included a claim that Canada Soccer leaders had “consistently failed to take responsibility” over multiple issues.

“It should alarm our country that the same men, Victor Montagliani and Peter Montopoli, who have done such a deleterious job of running Canada Soccer, are now in positions to oversee our country’s [co-]hosting of the 2026 World Cup … With the Birarda case, we saw their appalling failure to respond to several red flags of abusive behavior.

“These went well beyond sexual text messages [from Birarda], despite how Montagliani is trying to misrepresent and excuse himself now. There was sexual and psychological abuse of players on the team by Birarda. One ended up as a key witness in his criminal conviction but Canada Soccer didn’t act to protect the community. They negligently shifted his predatory behavior on and shrouded the reason for his departure, so he was back coaching vulnerable girls just weeks later.”

Former Vancouver Whitecaps player Ciara McCormack, whose 2019 blog about Birarda ignited widespread interest in the case, also addressed the committee.

“You have people sitting here, like Victor Montagliani, saying that he wasn’t involved,” she said. “Yes, you were. In [the 2022 McLaren] report [into Canadian soccer], it said you were involved. Those are facts.”

Crooks, a five-time track and field Olympian for Canada, was elected as Canada Soccer’s president for one year in early May following the resignation of Bontis. Bontis was elected to the council of Concacaf in March and promptly quit his role with Canada Soccer amid a labor dispute with players and concern over a controversial media rights deal.

Concacaf president Montagliani lobbied hard for Crooks to take the top job with the Toronto Star reporting a source that claimed: “This really boils down to Victor wanting his way, Victor wanting to control things, and again, flexing his muscles by saying that Concacaf and Fifa are going to [be hostile to Canada Soccer] if somebody else gets in that they don’t want.”

“I do not understand that to be the case,” Crooks told the Heritage Committee when asked about allegations that Montagliani made calls on her behalf saying Concacaf and Fifa would no longer support tournaments in Canada if she was not elected.

Montagliani and Bontis emphasized their Canada Soccer roles were as volunteers. In a heated exchange with Canadian MP Anthony Housefather, Montagliani declined to disclose his annual earnings as Concacaf president. Housefather highlighted a report that claimed Montagliani earned $2m as a soccer administrator in 2019.

“The issue is that the organization that I am the president of has a policy with respect to not disclosing that number,” Montagliani replied. “We have a policy, and the reason we have the policy is for security and safety reasons, because the confederation has security and safety issues throughout our confederation.”

Nicolle said of Canada Soccer’s governance issues: “Values are values regardless of where you are and it is very clear what the path is. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to figure out what happens here. [People on Canada Soccer’s board get] a paid gig at Concacaf or Fifa and Charmaine Crooks is on this exact same track. She has watched this happen. She … wasn’t on the board in 2008 but she didn’t raise her hand in 2019 [when she was]. I’ll tell you that for free.

“With all due respect you don’t get to fix [abuse in sport] now because you don’t have the talent to fix it. Otherwise you would have done that a decade ago. You don’t get the credit. I don’t think it is different at all. Judging by the elections that happened in Canada Soccer [this month] there is absolutely no change.”