New Ottawa Lions board of directors committed to ‘culture change’

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Veteran local high school teacher/coaches Nathalie Cote (left) and Kirk Dillabaugh are amongst the Ottawa Lions Track-and-Field Club’s new directors. (Photo: Dan Plouffe)

By Dan Plouffe

Nathalie Cote teaches history, geography and other social sciences full-time at Colonel By Secondary School. She’s mom to a 7-year-old, a 5-year-old and a 19-month-old who’s still not sleeping at night. She coaches the Cougars high school cross-country running and track-and-field teams.

It’s a busy life for Cote, but the former Team Canada cross-country runner added one more major task to her plate recently when she became the new president of the Ottawa Lions Track-and-Field Club.

The Lions had been reeling as their long-time leaders – head coach Andy McInnis and former board of directors chair Ken Porter – were accused of sexual misconduct, and were removed from their roles following an Athletics Canada investigator’s report that made headlines across the country.

“The club’s always meant a lot to me. It was a really important part of my life,” Cote says of her motivation to take on the new leadership role. “I got track scholarships to universities, I got to travel the world, that’s how I got my first teaching job, and all kinds of other opportunities. It’s helped me a lot.

“(The Lions) are like a second family to me, so I was like, ‘Oh, I can help out.’”

Initially, Cote had no design to become president, but the investigator’s report called out the Lions board of directors for not acting swiftly enough against McInnis and Porter, and recommended they resign en masse – a massive blow for any amateur sports group to lose its lead volunteers.

“I think they’re a bit misrepresented in the report,” Cote says of the past directors who often put in more volunteer hours than their regular full-time jobs to guide the club through the fallout. “In hindsight, it’s easy for a lot of people to sort of criticize what they’ve done, right? But they don’t have the full picture and the full information of what they were told.”

Cote was taken aback when she first heard about the allegations against Porter and McInnis, who’s been stripped of his spot in the Athletics Canada Hall of Fame.

“I’ve known them for 30 years, and I’ve always had a positive relationship with them, but you know, obviously that’s human nature, people have different relationships with different people,” Cote notes. “People can have all kind of skills and do a lot of good for a sport, but still…”

The report had a big effect on all club members, adds Cote, who now wants to ensure no one will again have to endure the same impact those who spoke up experienced over the course of a lengthy time period.

Building safe sport

The Lions are not alone in facing safe sport issues, and recent cases have provided impetus for Canadian sport to have an important conversation, Cote highlights.

“You see all the scandals happening – USA Gymnastics, all over,” Cote outlines. “A lot of stuff needed to come out, and there’s a lot of it coming out in every sport. There’s still a lot to be done, because the stuff may come out, but the culture doesn’t always necessarily change.”

The Lions are committed to change, underlines Cote, who gathered with her fellow new directors for a September retreat.

“We’re going to do more coaching education in terms of body image when coaching women, and things like that that are not always obvious and people don’t always realize that small comments here or there can have a big effect,” details Cote, whose club counts roughly 50 coaches in total.

Despite the troubles, the Lions are encouraged that membership numbers have hardly dropped, sitting around 1,200. It’s a sign of the positive impact the sport can have, Cote signals, and finding 11 strong new board members ready to step up and work to make the club better showed how mighty the Lions remain.

“I think we’re on the right track,” Cote states. “We’ve got a good mix and all kinds of wonderful professional skills, and the individuals who have joined the board want to see change and want that culture to change – that’s important. They’re committed to making sure this is a safe, fun environment for kids.”

Helping the healing process is also the regular schedule of competitions members are so passionate about. The fall cross-country season in full swing, and Lion shotputter Tim Nedow finished in the top-10 at the Sept. 28-Oct. 6 IAAF World Athletics Championships in Qatar.

“It’s great to see local athletes reaching for those really high goals,” Cote says. “And for a lot of others, it’s about community involvement, it’s about having fun, and developing athletic skills – that’s really what it’s all about.”

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