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Majority of COC staff exposed to Marcel Aubut harassment: probe

Marcel Aubut speaks during a news conference at the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 6, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. An independent probe of alleged impropriety by the former Canadian Olympic Committee president said a majority of the more than 100 staff members interviewed for the review experienced or saw sexual and personal harassment.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

An independent probe of alleged impropriety by former Canadian Olympic Committee president Marcel Aubut says a majority of the more than 100 staff members interviewed for the review experienced or saw sexual and personal harassment.

"A majority of COC staff interviewed reported experiencing or witnessing harassment (both sexual and personal) during the president's tenure, both inside and outside of the COC's offices," a summary of the report said.

It went on to say that some non-COC staff reported seeing Mr. Aubut engaging in harassing behaviour when he was acting as a representative of the COC.

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The report said senior members of the Olympic committee's management and leadership team whom it did not identify told investigators they became aware of problems as long ago as 2008.

"Clearly, we should have done better," said COC president Tricia Smith, who succeeded Mr. Aubut last fall.

The report makes eight recommendations, which include instituting a duty to report harassment, an awareness campaign and training on workplace behaviour, a policy czar's position, a process to allow employees to register concerns about the harassment policy, employee engagement surveys and renewed emphasis on respect and well-being in the workplace.

The report's authors also determined some managers or members of the senior leadership team "admitted to being in possession of information that suggested that harassment was occurring for COC staff" but did not recognize the legal implications or helped the employees without addressing the behaviour. Some passed it up the chain, "but it is unclear as to whether this information was ever acted upon."

Ms. Smith promised to implement the recommendations.

"This will not be business as usual," Ms. Smith said.

However, no significant moves at the management or board level are planned. When it was put to Ms. Smith that it is hard to reconcile handing a mandate for change to people who are part of the status quo, she said: "You have to appreciate there's a process . . . we all bear some responsibility."

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That rankles at least one gold medalist and major figure in Canada's recent Olympic history.

"Mea culpas are all well and good, but more has to happen. This is disappointing.There are people who knew what was going on and either didn't or couldn't do anything to stop it. They're still there, how can anyone have confidence?" said Sylvie Fréchette, an Olympic champion synchronized swimmer who won two medals in the 1990s.

Ms. Fréchette worked for the COC after her competitive career ended, but left in 2007, when Mr. Aubut was on the board, but before he took the top job. She has said she moved on in part because of the work environment.

A 21-page summary document details administrative and governance failings including an inadequate and poorly understood harassment policy, blurred lines of authority between management and the board and an ineffective and muddled complaints mechanism.

The full report was not made public, and the COC head declined to describe the nature of the staff allegations.

Ms. Smith, a long-time COC board member who ran against Mr. Aubut in 2009 and replaced him last November, offered an apology.

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"We all own this and we are truly sorry. We failed our employees," said Ms. Smith, a Vancouver-based lawyer and former Olympic rower.

She also emphasized the finding of "a lack of clarity" in authority at the top.

"This enabled the former president to exercise significant control, resulting in a culture where people did not have confidence in their ability to act in a way that could effect change," she said.

Ms. Fréchette said that analysis falls well short of accepting full responsibility.

"There are people who have left their jobs as a result of all of this, and some of them are still in counselling," she said.

The COC is proposing a beefed-up harassment policy, hiring a governance expert to advise on reforms, improved record-keeping and a confidential complaints mechanism.

Sources say as many as 140 people provided information to the investigation, which was led by Toronto labour lawyer Christine Thomlinson, whose firm reviewed harassment accusations against former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi.

Mr. Aubut did not respond to a request to comment.

The Globe and Mail has reported that Mr. Aubut became the subject of a formal harassment complaint in September of last year.

Then Montreal's La Presse reported on a letter to Mr. Aubut dated June 13, 2011, that detailed a meeting over an allegation from an employee that was "not an isolated incident" and insisted the COC chief refrain from touching, kissing and sexual innuendo.

It also indicated the matter would be kept private.

A Globe investigation also revealed that a human resources probe by VANOC, the organizing committee for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, was forwarded to the COC.

In a conference call last October, Ms. Smith said "the board was not aware of any specific interactions that could be construed as harassment."

The Thomlinson report found "two COC executives and three members of the board received information about the VANOC matters, most of which was non-specific and incomplete. This information was never documented and was not shared with the board as a whole."

Investigators found "there is information in the COC [human resources] file regarding concerns about the President's behaviour dating back to 2008," which contributed to the decision to hold the meeting described in the 2011 missive to Mr. Aubut.

Current CEO Chris Overholt was present for the discussion.

On Wednesday, Ms. Smith said the board has expressed unanimous support for Mr. Overholt, who will be instrumental in instituting the reforms.

The 68-year-old Aubut resigned his COC post last fall, and later withdrew from his Quebec City legal practice, saying he would seek "professional help."

The detailed recommendations drew praise from organizational behaviour expert Mallika Banerjee, an assistant professor at McGill University's Desautels School of Management, who said they are broadly aligned with the latest management scholarship.

"But accountability is really the issue," she said.

From that standpoint, the COC faces a particular challenge given its structure, in which those entrusted with building it are mostly accountable to one another.

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About the Authors
National Correspondent

Sean Gordon joined the Globe's Quebec bureau in 2008 and covers the Canadiens, Alouettes and Impact, as well as Quebec's contingent of Olympic athletes. More

Parliamentary reporter

Daniel Leblanc studied political science at the University of Ottawa and journalism at Carleton University. He became a full-time reporter in 1998, first at the Ottawa Citizen and then in the Ottawa bureau of The Globe and Mail. More

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