Four former members of Canada’s national water polo team program have filed a $5.5 million lawsuit against the federation, alleging that its top leaders, coaches and support staff have fostered a toxic culture for more than a decade.
According to the lawsuit, athletes were sexually harassed, encouraged to make sexual, racist and homophobic jokes, threatened by a coach who told them they would be shot or hit with a baseball bat if they performed poorly, criticized and taunted for their physical appearance and repeatedly urged honoring the organization’s “trust circle”.
A 38-page complaint was filed in Ontario Superior Court on April 29 and served on Water Polo Canada today. The plaintiffs, Sophie Baron La Salle, Katrina Monton, Stephanie Valin and an athlete identified in court documents as “AA,” were members of the women’s junior and senior national teams between 2004 and 2016.
Plaintiffs have sought $1 million in common 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 sought $4 million in past and future economic losses, special damages including costs of past and future care, and $500,000 in punitive damages.
Based in Ottawa, Water Polo Canada is a non-profit organization funded by the federal government. In 2021-22, WPC received $2.2 million from Sport Canada, while its carded athletes received $684,130, according to government filings.
Plaintiffs say the actions of the association’s staff – some of whom they say were implicated in alleged abuse while others ignored it – have caused them emotional, physical and psychological harm, anxiety and depression, personal shame and suffered self-reproach. Suicidal thoughts, PTSD, memory problems, panic attacks, alcohol abuse, and pervasive trust issues.
The allegations have not been tested in court and Water Polo Canada has not filed a defense statement.
The former national team members are the latest in a line of Canadian athletes to face allegations of rampant misconduct within their federation. Gymnastics Canada, Alpine Canada, Rowing Canada, Canada Soccer and Hockey Canada have all weathered crises from allegations of misconduct in recent years.
Although they are not named as defendants in the lawsuit, the lawsuit alleges a number of allegations against national team coaches and staff, including Baher El Sakkary, who coached the women’s national junior team from 2004-05; Daniel Berthelette, who was technical adviser and assistant coach for the senior women’s national team from 2007 to 2011; Pat Oaten, who coached the senior women’s national team from 2002 to 2012; and Guy Baker, who coached the senior women’s national team from 2012 to 2014.
“Baher, Dan, Pat and Guy collectively fostered a toxic culture at WPC during the plaintiffs’ many years on the women’s national team,” the lawsuit states. “It was a culture riddled with anger, violence, bullying, sexual harassment, body shaming, pressure for underage drinking and binge drinking… Every adult male coach used the power imbalance between himself and the young female athletes in his care to achieve this high.” Achieving performance results at the expense of athletes’ physical, psychological and emotional well-being.”
The lawsuit alleges that El Sakkary bullied athletes, called them demeaning names like “stupid,” “brat” and “a bunch of princesses,” and told them they were “chubby” and “not attractive.”
“Baher was also sexually inappropriate in athletes,” the claim reads. “On several occasions he met with athletes including AA, Katrina and Steph in his hotel room, dressed only in his underwear. During these meetings, he would sometimes hold a whiteboard over his genitals, forcing athletes to stare at the whiteboard while he allegedly discussed gameplay.”
In October 2004, Monton and Valin’s parents complained to Oaten about Baher’s behavior and filed grievances with Heather Kaulbach, WPC’s then-CEO, but nothing changed, the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit also details how Berthelette was fired from the organization in 2001 in response to athlete complaints and an outside investigation into his conduct, and then reinstated two years later to coach the junior women’s team. By 2007, Berthelette was hired as a technical adviser and assistant coach for the senior women’s national team.
“Dan has threatened athletes and their families with violence,” the lawsuit states. “When athletes were performing poorly, he would warn them he would bring a shotgun or baseball bat to the pool to shoot or hit them. During training, Dan threatened to harm athletes’ families if they failed to perform satisfactorily.
“To cement his authority and reinforce the athletes’ belief that he would carry out these threats, Dan told the team vivid stories about his past violence and his connections to the Mafia, Hell’s Angels and dangerous gangster friends.
Berthelette, the lawsuit states, told athletes he wanted to sleep with them so he could “tell if they were lesbians or not,” and in 2007 during a tournament in Portugal, she stood in a dining room and announced which athletes had dessert allowed to eat.
“On at least one occasion, he spiked vodka into an athlete’s drink,” the lawsuit states.
According to the lawsuit, Berthelette was asked to leave the organization for the second time in 2011.
Oaten, who is now coach of the men’s senior team, is said to have pressured La Salle, then a member of the women’s senior team, to complete a workout in a noisy and bright pool environment after suffering a concussion. The claim also details an incident during a training session in Hawaii after members of the national team asked for a water break.
“He refused, saying, ‘There’s water all around you,’ and implying that the athletes could drink the pool water if they were thirsty,” the lawsuit reads.
Baker is said to have openly disparaged and criticized athletes in front of others.
“He lined up the athletes in their swimsuits and ranked them ahead of everyone else based on their value to him and the team,” the lawsuit reads. “He reminded certain athletes of their low positions and openly warned them that they were on the verge of being dropped from the team.”
In 2013, a year into Baker’s stint as coach of the women’s senior national team, the team’s physiotherapist Marie-Pier Fafard began taking notes on Baker’s coaching.
“Guy called [Fafard] a traitor and told the athletes that if they were in the wild west, we would settle this with guns,” the lawsuit said. “Marie-Pier’s notes came to Guy’s attention through an athlete whom Guy praised for her loyalty. Guy told the team the athlete was a team player and he thanked her for standing behind him. Then he said Marie-Pier couldn’t be trusted anymore…”
Fafard left the organization over Baker’s alleged abusive practices, as did team psychologist Dr. Shaunna Taylor, assistant coach Johanne Begin and some athletes, according to the lawsuit.
After WPC recruited sports psychologist and former Canadian Olympian Dr. Penny Werthner to investigate allegations of misconduct against Baker, the coach reportedly learned about the investigation, met with athletes one-on-one and encouraged them to lie about the team’s training environment.
“Guy warned the athletes, including the plaintiffs, that they shared a ‘circle of trust’ and if anyone broke him he would know…” the lawsuit reads.
“Although Dr. Werthner recommended WPC to take action in relation to the complaint about Guy, WPC follows the recommendations of Dr. Werthner not followed,” the lawsuit says. Werthner submitted her report to WPC.”
A year later, in the summer of 2014, WPC informed athletes that Baker would not be returning as a coach, but did not provide details. After the athletes asked to see Werthner’s report, WPC chief executive Martin Goulet declined, saying it was confidential.
WPC President Kathleen Dawson announced on October 14 that Goulet is leaving the organization.
“With a strong sense of ethics, diligence and consistency, [Goulet] led the organization for nearly a decade and left an impressive legacy,” Dawson wrote in a statement at the time.
The lawsuit also investigates the conduct of some national team officials.
In 2013, Valin confided in WPC staffer Danièle Sauvageau, the former head coach of Canada’s women’s Olympic hockey team, about Baker’s violent outbursts and bullying, the lawsuit says.
“Steph told Danièle she hopes to get seriously injured so she doesn’t have to practice with Guy,” the lawsuit reads. “Danièle did not intervene to protect Steph, nor did she connect Steph with psychological support to accommodate Steph’s desire to be harmed.”
The allegation also states that Alain Delorme, strength and conditioning coach for the senior women’s national team, actively contributed to a toxic training environment by promoting “No Filter Fridays” on which he made sexual comments about women on the team and encouraged team members to make sexual comments , racist, and homophobic statements.
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