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Former rugby 7s coach in favour of releasing independent review of players complaint

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Former Canadian women's rugby sevens coach John Tait says he supports the release of the independent review into a complaint by current and former players.

"I am unable to speak to any of the details of the claims and the unequivocal findings of the independent investigator," Tait said in a statement Tuesday. "However, should RC (Rugby Canada) wish to release it all publicly, I would fully support them in doing so.

"I know that if the full truth came out, people will see that I have done nothing to warrant my behaviour being described as abusive in any way. It is shameful and beyond misleading for these athletes to be portraying themselves as victims in regards to how I or the program treated them.”

Rugby Canada, in an April 26 release, said the third-party investigation by Win Win HR Solutions Inc. was pursuant to its harassment and bullying policy.

"The investigator noted the conduct described in the complaint reflected the experiences of the 37 NSW7s (national senior women's sevens) athletes. However, the investigator determined that the conduct referenced was not behaviour which fell within the policy's definition of harassment or bullying,'' Rugby Canada said at the time.

Tait has said from the get-go that the complaints are unfounded and did not breach Rugby Canada policies. But he quit his job, saying "I no longer desire to continue as the national team head coach or in the role of high-performance director."

Rugby Canada says its 2013 harassment and bullying policy, under which the players' complaint was filed, "does not allow for the report or the complaints to be made public."

"This is normal and common practice for organizations to maintain confidentiality throughout the entire complaints process. This commitment to confidentiality recognizes how difficult it is to come forward with a complaint of this nature while balancing the interests of both the complainant(s) and the respondent(s). This was understood by all parties in advance."

In March, the governing body approved what it calls an "updated safe sport policy manual.''

Under the new policy, "all items related to the complaint must remain confidential until the process is complete and a decision has been made."

"In keeping with current practices, the policy states that decisions that result in sanctions may be shared in some instances," Rugby Canada said. "Publicly disclosing an investigative report would not be considered without the consent of all parties, as Rugby Canada continues to recognize the difficulties of coming forward in matters of this nature." 

The women's sevens team, which made a formal complaint in January to its governing body, says it was let down by Rugby Canada's harassment and bullying policy.

In an April 28 statement released by captain Ghislaine Landry, the women said their complaint "explained the psychological abuse, harassment and/or bullying these athletes feel they were subjected to in the centralized training environment.''

"The national team athletes have shown true courage in coming forward to shine a light on what they have experienced in an effort to bring about meaningful change to their sport,'' the statement said.

"We followed the procedures outlined in Rugby Canada's policy, which was put in place in 2013. We feel that this process failed to protect us and did not acknowledge the abuse and harassment that we believe we suffered.''

The statement was signed by the 37 women, three of whom chose to remain anonymous. The team says the 37 represent 55 per cent of the athletes who have been involved in the centralized training program in Langford, B.C.

Nineteen of the 21 women listed by Rugby Canada as members of the current squad put their name to the statement.

The initial complaint went to an independent review after mediation failed to produce a solution.

In their April 28 statement, the players said change and accountability are needed.

"We know firsthand how hard it is to speak out and how hard it is to ask for change. Athletes should never have to experience heightened anxiety, depression, racism, eating disorders, low self-worth or mental illness as part of participating in sport at any level.''

The players called for Rugby Canada "to ensure they understand our experiences and chart a pathway forward to a positive and respectful training environment.''

Rugby Canada CEO Allen Vansen says his organization will undertake an independent assessment of the women's sevens and other programs "to help us understand the journey and experiences of our athletes and staff involved with our national teams.''

"The goal of the assessment will be to deliver recommendations to improve our training and competition environment,'' Vansen added.

The assessment will start after the Summer Olympics and the outcome will be made public, he said.

Under Tait, the Canadian sevens women won bronze at the 2016 Olympics, silver at the 2013 Rugby World Cup Sevens and gold at the 2015 Pan American Games.

The women's sevens team has been centralized since 2012 with the 47-year-old Tait, a former Canadian international, in charge.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 4, 2021.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press