Minister Pascale St-Onge says ‘more work to be done’ on sport inclusivity 

The openly lesbian cabinet minister says she’s not afraid to push back on issues that matter to her

Pascale St-Onge, Canada’s first openly lesbian federal cabinet minister, maintains that she is surprised she is the first, given how many gay men have preceded her in cabinet positions, but says that it’s been a great experience so far.

“I was a bit surprised to be the first [gay] woman, because I never thought it that way, but it feels very natural and welcoming,” St-Onge says in an interview with Xtra. “That comes from Justin Trudeau’s leadership. He values people’s differences, and different people’s life experiences and what it can bring into Canadian politics and policies. I feel like I can be myself. It’s something that’s valued and cherished at cabinet and my colleagues at caucus as well.”

St-Onge was named directly to cabinet in 2021 after having been elected for the first time in the hotly contested riding of Brome—Missisquoi, Quebec, where she won by fewer than 200 votes, and given the portfolios of both Minister of Sport, as well as Economic Development Agency for the Regions of Quebec.

St-Onge studied journalism in university, but never practised in the field, having started in the advertising department at La Presse before getting involved in the labour organization Fédération nationale des communications et de la culture at a time when there was a lockout at a rival newspaper. She eventually became president of the Fédération, which was the experience that made her consider the leap to politics, particularly with the encouragement of other Quebec ministers like Mélanie Joly, currently the foreign affairs minister, but whom she first met with as heritage minister in 2015.

“I started there [the Fédération] in 2012 at the start of the media crisis—we’re still in it, but this was at the beginning—but I understood quite quickly that we wouldn’t be able to figure it out just by negotiating our contract with our employers,” St-Onge says. “We needed to have a clear oversight of what was happening in the media sector and what could be done to make sure that media could survive, because it’s so essential to democracy.”

St-Onge says that the work to help media survive is still ongoing, pointing to the government’s current bills that would give outlets leverage in negotiations with web giants, saying that when it passes, she will be satisfied.

St-Onge says that she has always been a political person, especially around human rights issues, and her nine years at the Fédération allowed her to get to know more people in the Liberal party. When Joly called her to ask her to run, St-Onge was at the end of her time as president and felt she had advanced the files as much as she could, giving her the impetus to make the leap to federal politics.

“To be honest, growing up, or even at the Fédération, I never thought I would get involved and have my face on a telephone pole,” St-Onge says.

 

There was very much a sense that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wanted St-Onge in cabinet as he held off on announcing its composition after the election until the results in St-Onge’s riding were settled, which St-Onge says was surprising and humbling, but is a great responsibility.

“I have to say that there are so many interesting and diverse people in cabinet and the prime minister is so groundbreaking in bringing so many different perspectives around the decision-making table that it’s been really incredible to be part of those conversations and to share my own perspectives with my colleagues and with the prime minister,” St-Onge says. “I really feel like this is the way to move forward and make sure that our government resembles the Canadian population.”

St-Onge says the job has been a steep learning curve so far, particularly given the number of issues that have exploded within the sports community, but five years after the #MeToo movement impacted the cultural sector, which she dealt with while at the Fédération, that movement has reached sport, where people now feel safer to tell their stories.

“It’s a good thing, because if you want to change things, first you have to know what is happening and acknowledge it,” St-Onge says. “Sport is very similar to culture, because there is a lot of power imbalance between athletes, their coaches and their federations, just like in the media sector or the cultural sector where the career of an artist or journalist depends a lot on their boss.”

St-Onge says that the constant revelations of abuse in sport, largely with hockey and gymnastics at centre stage in recent years, has been a big responsibility. There are a lot of expectations around what she and the government are going to do about it, particularly around changing the culture in order to make it safer and more inclusive.

“It’s been hard on a personal level and for my team, because we hear all of those horrible stories about what athletes have gone through, whether it’s sexual abuse, whether it’s psychological abuse or physical abuse or maltreatment—every story is so hard to hear and so heartbreaking because sport and physical activity should be something positive in everyone’s life,” St-Onge says. “We tell children to play sports and do physical activity—you’re going to build your skills—and then we hear these stories about how it destroyed some people’s lives instead of making it better.

“On a human level, it’s pretty hard, but it’s motivating as well, because these people have so much courage in telling their stories,” St-Onge says. “It means that we need to change things and make things better for athletes, and I feel like that’s what we’re doing. ”

St-Onge says she wants to get the ball rolling and introduce new policy soon, but notes that she has a limited number of tools available to her as federal minister because sport is not regulated in Canada or managed by the state as it is in other, mainly authoritarian, countries. 

“Every federally funded sport organization is independent from government,” St-Onge says. “I don’t name boards, I don’t vote [on] their policies, I don’t vote on who is going to be on the board, I don’t hire coaches. So my tools are pretty much in the financial agreements that the government signs with sport organizations, so that is what we’re really working hard on right now. Before the next funding cycle begins in April 2023, we want to have new policies around governance and diversity, inclusivity and expertise that needs to be on boards, as well as financial transparency.”

St-Onge is also looking for more accountability from these organizations in order to ensure that they take athlete safety to heart, and that they do the work to prevent abuse and manage allegations properly when they come up. Part of that involves ensuring that sport organizations sign up with the new Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner before they can receive new funding, though there has been criticism that the commissioner doesn’t have adequate powers, whether around publishing the names of abusive coaches, or in being indemnified against legal action for doing her job.

St-Onge says she is aware of these concerns, but notes that this is a completely new system that started on June 20 of this year.

“It’s something that’s been asked for by athletes for years, and that my predecessor had started working on way before I got into office,” St-Onge says. “I basically took the process at the end.”

“I’m in politics to share my voice, and to be part of the solution, and be part of the conversation. I’m so worried right now about the backward movement that we see in democracies that have been models for so many years”

She highlighted the office’s independence as an “essential” part of rebuilding the sport system, because the commissioner is the only one who has oversight over how cases are investigated, as opposed to third parties hired by sports federations, whom athletes don’t feel are independent enough. 

“At the same time, I’m listening to the athletes, and we’re looking at ways to improve the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner,” St-Onge says. “It’s going to be a work in progress for months and years, but it’s already in place and capable of investigating individual complaints and doing cultural assessments when there is a problem in sport. They can already sanction coaches or officials, or even athletes, and they can make recommendations, so we need to make sure that all organizations are signed up with the office before April 2023.”

St-Onge also notes that the office is open to provinces who don’t want to build their own organization, and they are currently in negotiation.

“The goal is that all athletes, no matter the level, have an independent place they can turn to when they are facing abuse or mistreatment,” St-Onge says.

When it comes to inclusivity in sports, particularly for queer and trans athletes, the messages of groups like You Can Play seem to be less vocal than they had been in the past. St-Onge notes that there is still work to be done, but there are projects in the works, including the Sports For All Initiative, with an $80 million budget going to national organizations or groups whose goal is to reach underserved communities that don’t necessarily have access to sport, including LGBTQ2S+ communities.

“The goal is to bring back people to physical activity after the pandemic, because we know how important it is and how hard it’s been,” St-Onge says. “Still, that’s not enough, so we are working right now on the renewal of the Canadian sport policy, and the last one was introduced in 2012, so it’s at the end of its cycle.”

St-Onge notes that she was an athlete, swimming competitively until she was 17, then playing volleyball in college and university, where she experienced some of that toxic and homophobic culture herself.

“I came out in the last year of college, first year of university, and I played volleyball at a university level. When I came out, it didn’t go that well with the team,” St-Onge says. “I know what homophobia feels like in sport. I think that experience has taught me how it feels to be bullied or discriminated against, or not as included as I should have been—because it’s always a little bit insidious and not upfront. That experience has surely made me more aware of what athletes can go through when they’re different, but I don’t pretend that I know everything. I’m really listening to different people’s experiences. I know there is a lot of discrimination still happening in sport. There still needs to be more done.”

St-Onge says that the governance aspect is so important for her because when there is diversity around the decision-making table, it’s those differences of experience that can bring change, likening it to Trudeau’s decision to name a very diverse cabinet. 

“When the leadership changes, I hope that the change trickles down to all levels in the arenas and in the gyms,” St-Onge says.

St-Onge has also been vocal in recent months around the issues related to FIFA and the World Cup in Qatar, or with homophobic tweets coming out of the Russian embassy in Ottawa, which is something she says she was not prompted to engage in by the Prime Minister’s Office.

“The reason why I’m being vocal about these things is because I care about it, and it truly disturbs me and hurts me to see that around the world, there is still so much discrimination against queer and trans people,” St-Onge says. “I’m in politics to share my voice, and to be part of the solution, and be part of the conversation. I’m so worried right now about the backward movement that we see in democracies that have been models for so many years, like the United States.”

St-Onge says that when times are tough, it’s time to speak out and speak up, which is also why she takes such offence to the current Conservative talking point that posits that Canada is “broken.”

“The movements that we’re seeing around the world are here in Canada as well,” St-Onge says. “We need to protect our democracy, we need to protect our institutions, we need to speak up about how good life is in Canada. When I hear Conservatives repeating that ‘Canada is broken,’ that’s not true. That’s not the Canada that you and I live in. Of course there is still inequality, of course we need to listen to the voices of people who feel they were left behind, especially during the pandemic, but it’s not true that Canada is broken. We need to protect it, and take care of our democracy and our diversity. That’s why I’m being vocal about these things.”

Dale Smith is a freelance journalist in the Parliamentary Press Gallery and author of The Unbroken Machine: Canada's Democracy in Action.

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Politics, Culture, Power, Feature, Sports, Canada

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