By Lori Ewing
(Reuters) -A group saying they represent more than 50 current and former Canadian fencers have joined a growing call for a Canadian judicial inquiry on maltreatment in sport, saying fear of retribution has kept them silent for nearly 20 years on what they called fencing's toxic culture and abusive practices.
"Unfortunately, we have been united by our shared experiences of abuse, neglect and discrimination," the group, calling themselves Fencing for Change Canada, said in a letter to Canadian Sports Minister Pascale St-Onge, sent on Thursday and published online.
"Over the past 20 years, we have experienced various forms of emotional, physical and sexual abuse and misconduct," said the letter.
Many are still feeling the psychological and physical impact, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide attempts, the fencers said in the letter, which did not include names of individual athletes.
The fencers allege that some of the perpetrators were Canadian team coaches, the athletes abused were often minors, and the maltreatment occurred at Canadian Fencing Federation (CFF)-sponsored events at the provincial level, and up to national and international competitions.
The CFF said in a statement in response to the letter that they were committed to addressing any concerns being raised "as promptly as we can."
"As fencers ourselves, we are deeply troubled to hear that other fencers have concerns they feel have not yet been addressed properly," the CFF said.
"Ultimately, we believe that the entire sport system requires a coordinated effort to address systemic issues. We are committed to working alongside Sport Canada and other sport leaders to address these gaps and to restore trust where it has been broken."
The CFF said their athlete representative would convene a town hall for athletes to share stories.
One former Canadian team fencer, who requested anonymity, told Reuters that there had been "a wide range of abusive practices and environments" that she was exposed to where she trained in Vancouver.
"It's difficult to encompass everything, but really ... from the time that you're very little, you're engrossed in this culture where your coaches are king, and you slowly get indoctrinated into this mindset of feeling like you're nothing if you're not everything to them," she said.
The fencer, who retired recently, said the toxic behaviour began with coaches caressing her hair. She said they asked for kisses and demanded she tell them she loved them.
By the time she was 10, coaches at her club in British Columbia would line the girls up in a row in front of the boys after practice, she said.
"They would choose us one at a time to help the boys get changed (out of their fencing whites)," she said. "That progresses into comments about your body, and there was a lot I witnessed in terms of public humiliation and psychological abuse. I saw my coach tie someone's shoelaces together and made them run sprints because he thought it was funny."
She said she was regularly forced to train to exhaustion, often passing out or vomiting.
The fencer said she has been diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and works with a mental health professional.
"By the time I left (the sport), I felt so worthless without their approval," she said. "A lot of days I woke up, I wanted to kill myself."
Canada has been rocked by a series of sport scandals over the past year, with athletes in gymnastics, bobsleigh and skeleton, boxing, women's soccer, rowing and others calling on St-Onge to clean up sport.
They are asking for a national investigation similar to the 1989 Dubin Inquiry that delved into the use of drugs after the Ben Johnson doping scandal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
"I started fencing when I was a kid, and I really love the sport," another former athlete, also requesting anonymity, told Reuters. "And I really struggle with seeing what my friends, not even realising until later, had gone through.
"Our goal is to keep the positivity the sport can bring ... while removing this negative weight that has been perpetually in the culture. We're hoping to make the sport safer, and to have safe reporting systems where athletes feel comfortable telling their stories, where they can really feel like change will happen, that they're being listened to and they have a voice."
St-Onge did not immediately respond to a request for comment. She has previously argued against an inquiry, citing the creation of Canada's first Office of the Sports Integrity Commissioner (OSIC), which began hearing complaints in June last year.
The Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, meanwhile, has recently heard testimony from members of the national women's soccer team and members of Canada Soccer's executive in an ongoing labour dispute.
Athletes from numerous sports have also testified since December before the Standing Committee on the Status of Women on the safety of women and girls in sport.
(Reporting by Lori EwingEditing by Toby Davis and Rosalba O'Brien)