Lisa Ross wants her job back.
The two-time Olympic sailor for Canada was named to the national sailing team's coaching staff three years ago.
Nine days after telling Sail Canada in March that she was pregnant and would take maternity leave later this year, Ross was fired.
Ross was in Andora, Italy, where she'd been coaching Canadian sailors at the European championship. She was about to head to Spain for more competitions and training camps.
The 46-year-old from Mahone Bay, N.S., said that during the March 17 video call with Sail Canada's chief executive officer Don Adams and high-performance director Mike Milner, she was told to pack her bags and return to Canada.
"It was strange and shocking," Ross told The Canadian Press. "It was a five-minute phone call where I was fired, basically, without cause.
"I was in Europe. I was in the middle of a planned six-week trip."
Sail Canada said lack of money, and not Ross's pregnancy, was the reason for her firing.
"Sail Canada terminated Lisa Ross’s contract for financial reasons which had nothing to do with Lisa Ross being pregnant," the organization said in a statement to The Canadian Press.
"Discussions and the decision to terminate Lisa Ross’s contract took place well before she verbally informed Sail Canada High Performance Director that she was pregnant.
Sail Canada said Ross’s salary was supported by Sport Canada Gender Equity funding, which was eliminated at the end of the 2021-2022 fiscal year.
"Sail Canada was able to maintain Lisa Ross’s position in the next fiscal year through the Return to Sport funding program but, unfortunately, that funding is no longer available in 2023-2024," the organization said.
Ross's annual salary was $80,000. The federal government renewed its funding for gender equity in sport in October with a commitment of $25.3 million over three years.
"This is not available at present but we have been informed it may be some time in the future," Sail Canada said in a statement. "We do not know if female coaching will be part of the areas of funding.
Sail Canada said it made its decision to fire Ross "because of financial reasons based on the information available at the time of budget finalization."
"With the 2023-2024 Olympic season fast approaching, and in order for Sail Canada to prioritize Olympic hopefuls and maintain a balanced budget, Sail Canada has to make drastic cuts to its High Performance budget."
Sail Canada said it sought a Nova Scotia labour lawyer's advice on Feb. 21 to vet the decision to dismiss Ross.
Ross departed for Europe at the end of February and had no inkling that her job was on the chopping block until she was sacked March 17.
"I just would have liked the opportunity, if funding was the issue, to visit any possibility of ensuring that I can continue in my role as one of the more senior coaches on the staff," Ross said.
Sail Canada said it waited until after the European championship March 10-17 to fire her "so that it would not become a distraction for the athletes."
Ross was the only woman on Sail Canada's technical staff of a high-performance director and coaches.
Since her dismissal, Rosie Chapman was hired on a contract basis.
Chapman is partially subsidized by athletes and costs 20 per cent of a full-time salary, Sail Canada said.
Ross competed for Canada in 2004 in Athens in women's three-person keelboat and 2008 in Beijing in women's dinghy.
She coached laser sailor Brenda Bowskill at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Ross was named the Canadian sailing team's development coach in 2020, but she coached the senior men's laser team that year.
Ross didn't coach at Tokyo's Olympics in 2021. She was on maternity leave with her second child.
She was coaching the 49er FX women's development team when she was fired. Her third child is due Sept. 1.
She'd planned to continue coaching until August when she could no longer fly.
Ross intended to be back with the athletes in time for January's world championship and to help prepare them for the 2024 Olympics in Paris. She says she communicated that plan to Sail Canada the day she told the organization she was pregnant.
Milner replied that same day: "You should also know Rosie and I have been talking on and off for more than a year on joining our team and I think this is a great opportunity for the girls while you are on mat leave."
Milner also wrote in that email to Ross that his "initial thought" would be to have Chapman become the international coach after April's Princess Sofia or Hyeres regattas "and focus you on domestic training."
Ross has filed claims with Nova Scotia's Labour Standards Board and Human Rights Commission, but has not sued Sail Canada.
"I'm not asking for a massive amount of money," Ross said. "I'm asking for my job back."
The World Sailing Trust recently launched a half-dozen recommendations under an initiative called Project Juno to "support better maternity policies in sailing."
While Sail Canada insists her pregnancy did not cost Ross her job, it says the organization has pregnancy and parental leave policy "that is in keeping with the Ontario Employment Standards Act" and also subject to Sport Canada's Athletes Assistance Program policies and procedures.
Ross says she has never seen that policy.
She hasn't filed a complaint with the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner (OSIC), which was established almost a year ago to administer Canadian sport's universal code of conduct. Sail Canada is a signatory to OSIC.
"I want my job back, so I want to focus on that," Ross said. "I want to be a part of the sport system that I've been a part of since I was 17.
"I went to my first Pan Am Games when I was 17. It's been a scary process to go through, just even with my relationship with Sail Canada because that's been a huge part of my life and I want that to continue."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 29, 2023.
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press