Water Polo Canada facing $5.5M lawsuit alleging abuse

Another national sports organization in Canadais under the spotlight — four former members of the national water polo team program have filed a $5.5-million lawsuit against Water Polo Canada, alleging the federation’s top executives, coaches and support staff fostered a toxic culture for more than a decade.

The lawsuit says the former players were sexually harassed, threatened, encouraged to make racist and homophobic jokes, and warned repeatedly to honour Water Polo Canada’s “circle of trust.”

Water Polo Canada (WPC) is a not-for-profit organization based in Ottawa that receives federal government funding. It has not responded to a request for comment.

One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit stated that athletes were made to feel like they were“under a microscope.

“We have to constantly improve our performance, we’re always critiqued, we’re always criticized,” Katrina Monton told CTV News.

“And I think it’s time that other stakeholders in the space … look in the mirror and acknowledge their part in the system.”

Monton was a member of Canada’s junior and senior national water polo teams for 14 years, starting when she was 15. She says some of WPC’s staff made a conscious choice to ignore abusive behaviour.

“It’s a privilege to not have had to consider the damage or the things that have been inflicted or done,” she said. “I think it’s a privilege to not have to look back on your own behaviour and adjust it and amend it in any way.”

The lawsuit contains allegations referencing a string of national team coaches, including one who allegedly met athletes in his hotel room wearing only his underwear, and on another occasion pressured them into waxing his back and chest hair.

Another coach allegedly threatened athletes, saying he would bring a shotgun or baseball bat to the pool to shoot or beat them if they performed poorly.

Pat Oaten, who is now the coach of the men’ssenior national team, is alleged in the lawsuit to have openly discussed his sex life with women’s national team members.

“We were living in a culture where everything was swept under the rug and ignored,” Steph Valin, another former team member and plaintiff in the lawsuit, said. “We were chess pieces in a game and we were all disposable.

“It was a culture that was wilfully blind.”

A 38-page statement of claim was filed in Ontario Superior Court on April 29, and was served to WPC on Thursday. The allegations have not yet been tested in court.

Within the last few years, numerous Canadian sports federations have been hit with lawsuits and allegations of abuse and rampant misconduct, including Hockey Canada, Gymnastics Canada, Rowing Canada and Canada Soccer.

This reckoning now appears to have come to the sport of water polo.

The four former members of Canada’s water polo team claim the abuse they say theysuffered has caused them to experience emotional, physical and psychological harm, including anxiety and depression, suicidal thoughts and profound issues with trust.

“I’ve been dealing with depression, a lot of anxiety — post-traumatic syndrome, that’s the word I need to say out loud— and low self-esteem for my entire life,” Sophie Baron La Salle, told CTV News. “Because I first started water polo when I was nine and then 14, so I grew up in that environment.”

La Salle alleges in the lawsuit that Oaten once made her sit through a practice in a bright and loud pool environment despite having suffered a recent concussion.

The fourth plaintiff is identified only as A.A. in court documents. All four were members of the women’s junior and senior national teams at some point between 2004 and 2016.

The coaches identified in the lawsuit are not listed as defendants, but are identified as having “fostered a toxic culture at WPC,” the lawsuit states.

Along with Oaten, who was the senior women’s national team coach from 2002 to 2012, coaches Baher El Sakkary, Daniel Berthelette and Guy Baker were mentioned by name.

“Each adult male coach leveraged the power imbalance between themselves and the young women athletes in their care in an attempt to achieve high performance results at the expense of athletes’ physical, psychological, and emotional well-being,” the lawsuit states.

El Sakkary, who coached the women’s junior national team from 2004-2005, allegedly bullied athletes by calling them insulting names and criticizing their appearance, and would act “sexually inappropriate with athletes,” according to the lawsuit.

Berthelette had previously been fired by the organization in 2001 after athletes and their parents complained about his behaviour, according to the lawsuit, but was re-hired two years later to coach the junior women’s team. In 2007, he was hired to be a technical advisor and assistant coach for the senior women’s national team, where the plaintiffs encountered him.

He allegedly would tell athletes he wanted to sleep with them to “tell if they were lesbians or not,” and would use threats of violence to motivate athletes to perform, according to the lawsuit.

“To cement his authority and reinforce the athletes’ belief that he would carry out these threats, Dan told the team graphic stories about his past violence and his affiliations with the mafia, Hell’s Angels, and dangerous gangster friends,” the lawsuit stated, adding that he was asked to leave WPC in 2011.

The lawsuit also outlines critiques of some national team support staff. Valin allegedly went to WPC support staff member Daniele Sauvageau in 2013 about Guy Baker’s bullying and outbursts, expressing her fear of working with him.

“Daniele did not intervene to protect Steph, nor did she connect Steph to psychological support to address Steph’s desire to be harmed,” the lawsuit stated.

The plaintiffs are asking for $1 million for general and aggravated damages for breach of fiduciary duty, breach of contract and vicarious liability for physical, psychological and emotional abuse, and sexual harassment. They have also asked for $4 million in relation to past and future economic losses suffered as a result of Water Polo Canada’s alleged failure to protect them, and $500,000 in punitive damages.

In the 2021-22 season, Water Polo Canada received $2.2 million from Sport Canada, according to government records, while its carded athletes received around $634,000.

Water Polo Canada has not responded to CTV News’s request for comment. The lawsuit says that even though parents complained about the coaches’ behaviour and submitted complaints to the organization, nothing changed.  

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