Canadian Olympic Committee examines harassment policy in wake of Aubut scandal

Rocked by the resignation of its president amid sexual harassment allegations, the Canadian Olympic Committee says its workplace policies should be strengthened to make it easier for complainants to come forward.

Marcel Aubut stepped down after women accused him of harassing behaviour such as sexually charged comments and unwanted touching. It was a stunning development for a man who stamped his big personality on the Olympic movement in Canada.

Tricia Smith, who ran against Aubut for the COC’s presidency in 2009, will be interim president until an election is held at a COC board meeting in November. The new president will finish out Aubut’s term ending in the spring of 2017.

Canada’s summer athletes are entering their final months of preparation for the 2016 Summer Olympics opening Aug. 5.

Smith was unavailable for comment Monday. The former Olympic rower said in a letter to staff and Canada’s sports federations, however, that independent investigators conducting a review of internal policies will be asked for recommendations on how to make the process of lodging a complaint less stressful.

“The events of the past week have caused us to consider what more we can do to ensure we have a workplace that is consistent with the ideals and standards of the COC and the Olympic movement,” Smith said in the letter obtained by The Canadian Press.

“One challenge we have identified for review by our independent experts, is how to ensure any victims of harassment and sexual harassment feel fully comfortable coming forward with a complaint, if they are feeling mistreated. We anticipate we will need to improve our processes in this regard.”

A first woman withdrew her complaint when Aubut resigned, but the COC’s investigation into other allegations of harassment is continuing.

Aubut apologized to “those who may have been offended by my behaviour” in a statement announcing his resignation Saturday.

“I realize that my attitude could at times be perceived as questionable by some women and could have caused them to feel uncomfortable,” he said. “I acknowledge this and will adjust my behaviour accordingly.”

Longtime COC board member and International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound said the situation proves the COC’s policies against harassment work, but restoring confidence within is what the organization needs right now.

“I think it’s probably to do what Tricia started to do, which is to communicate that this is a real problem, an awkward problem and we want to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Pound said Monday from Switzerland.

“We’re taking steps to make it easier to report on unacceptable conduct,” he added. “Our job is to make sure there’s an atmosphere in our office, with our teams, with our officials, everybody, that you don’t get any kind of harassment, sexual or otherwise.”

Aubut, 67, became a board member of the COC in 2000 and took over as president in 2010. Well-connected politically, the Montreal lawyer aggressively pursued corporate sponsorships with a goal set in 2012 to raise $100 million within four years.

He moved the heart of the COC’s operations in 2013 into a tony address on Rene-Levesque Boulevard in Montreal.

Aubut escorted IOC president Thomas Bach around Toronto and Montreal in July. At the conclusion of the Pan American Games, Aubut launched a full-court press urging Toronto to bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics, which the city ultimately declined to do.

Whether the COC chooses another mover-shaker to take over, or goes with more understated leadership, Pound says the Olympic movement in Canada is not irreparably damaged by the scandal. 

“The five rings are bigger than Marcel Aubut,” Pound said.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press