A Personal Statement by Hana Taiji

To Whom it may concern,

I am adding my voice of support to a growing list of players who are speaking up about the disturbing pattern of player abuses that took place in the Canada Soccer and Women’s Whitecaps programs during the late 2000’s. I am one of 13 former U20 National Team players who was coached by Bob Birarda between 2006 and 2008. Together, we have signed a collective statement calling for a thorough investigation into allegations of inappropriate conduct and serious abuses of trust by Coach Birarda as well as a significant overhaul of player safeguarding practices in Canadian women’s soccer.

The focus of recent news has been on the conduct of Coach Birarda over his tenure with the National Team and Whitecaps programs. During the time I played for Coach Birarda, I was both a subject of and a witness to his ongoing targeted humiliations, attempts at intimidation and uncomfortably suggestive, inappropriate behaviour. For me, the experience was deeply destabilizing and damaging to my dream of playing at the highest level of Canadian soccer. But, I acknowledge that some of my teammates had it much worse.

I believe Coach Birarda must be held to account for his actions, but we must also examine the circumstances that allowed his behaviours to persist. He was part of a system and culture in elite women’s soccer which turned a collective blind eye to coercion, bullying and harassment.  These events did not happen in a vacuum. There were men and women in positions of influence — trainers, managers, administrators and other coaches — who could have intervened on behalf of the vulnerable young women they were in place to serve, most of whom were minors at the time. But, these responsible adults chose to look the other way.

Judging by the number of female athletes that are coming forward and the even larger numbers who are talking behind the scenes, the sport careers and personal lives of many were adversely affected by their Team Canada and Whitecaps experiences. To make matters worse, there were damaging consequences for the brave players who tried to raise these issues at the time. All of this casts a dark shadow over the entire sport in our country — including over those coaches, administrators and athletes who have always acted with professionalism and integrity.

Despite my time with Canada Soccer ending poorly, I have been positively shaped by my experiences as a female athlete and have benefitted from access to outstanding club and collegiate coaches. In February 2008, after a particularly bizarre and unsettling training camp, I decided to leave the National Team program because of Coach Birarda, even though that meant giving up the opportunity to potentially play in a U20 World Cup. I went on to play NCAA soccer in the United States, where I experienced an amazingly supportive coaching and team environment, even while battling a career-ending injury toward the end.

This and earlier club experiences on Vancouver Island helped preserve my deep love of soccer. Now, I am very fortunate to be in a leadership position at a globally-recognized sport for social impact organization in Lesotho. The years of wrestling with my Canadian national team experiences are mostly behind me as I now have the opportunity to invest my time and energy into creating pathways for young players who want to pursue their own dreams through soccer. It has been an insightful and healing experience.

In spite of the subject of my statement, I have come to realize how fortunate I was to grow up in a country where sport can provide truly life-changing pathways to travel, education and a meaningful career. Through my work in Lesotho, I have also learned the importance of safeguarding young people, not just as a policy on paper but as committed daily practices backed by serious consequences for those who breach the Code of Conduct. These standards of care should be even more important in elite sport settings where the pressures of performance goals might appear to justify unsafe behaviours.

Canadian athletes deserve no less. I fully support the recommendations of my peers which require both Canada Soccer and the Whitecaps to exercise full transparency and accountability in addressing the issues of the past and to implement more rigorous policies to protect athletes of the future.

As a spotlight shines on the Canadian Women this summer in France, I hope that we can all feel proud of our team and our sport, knowing we have helped create a safer, healthier and fairer environment where every player can achieve her full potential.

Hana Taiji

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