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Michaëlle Jean, chancellor of the University of Ottawa, expressed concern about the futures of the members of the hockey team and their mental health. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Michaëlle Jean, chancellor of the University of Ottawa, expressed concern about the futures of the members of the hockey team and their mental health. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

At U of O, president’s response to alleged assault came under scrutiny Add to ...

The University of Ottawa came under immediate scrutiny from the public and its own high-profile chancellor after it suspended the entire men’s hockey team following an alleged sexual assault by some of its players last February, internal correspondence shows.

E-mails obtained by The Globe and Mail under a provincial Freedom of Information request reveal that in the first day after the alleged assault and suspensions became public, the school received about 150 e-mails from parents and alumni – some supporting, some opposing the school’s action. The documents also show that former governor-general Michaëlle Jean, the university’s chancellor, later expressed concern about the players’ futures and their mental health.

There “is still work to be done,” Ms. Jean wrote to university president Allan Rock in August, 2014, after two players on the team were charged with sexual assault. “I think there is a great need for counselling to help the Gee Gees regroup and move on as a team. They need some tools to overcome this traumatic experience and also understand that the impact is obviously mainly on the young woman who’s been assaulted… The counselling should be made available, on an individual and collective basis.

“I have not seen other universities advance an approach like the one I am proposing,” she wrote.

The university does not appear to have acted on Ms. Jean’s idea in the fall. In a statement, it said counseling had been offered to the athletes on the team in March and June. The president and chancellor declined interview requests.

At a time when Dalhousie University has faced scrutiny for how it has addressed misogynistic comments made on Facebook by male students in its dentistry faculty, the correspondence from the University of Ottawa provides a glimpse into how postsecondary institutions are developing responses to incidents of sexual harassment or assault.

The e-mails, however, shed no further light into the contents of an internal report which the university has said drove its decision to suspend this year’s season and overhaul the program. Releasing that report publicly could violate the players’ privacy, it claims.

The alleged assault of a 21-year-old woman became public on March 3, when the university announced it was suspending the men’s hockey team and its coaching staff. That was a month after police say the assault occurred in a Thunder Bay hotel room; the team was on a road trip to play two games against Lakehead University.

In responses to e-mails of both criticism and support, Mr. Rock explained that the school did not believe the suspension infringed on the rights of individual players. “The University has not taken any steps in relation to specific players. We have suspended the program and not the individual players.”

In another instance, he personally wrote to the parents of a female student who were upset about seeing students wearing T-shirts they thought were “promoting rape.”

As winter turned to spring and summer, the school continued to face waves of publicity.

In April, letters of support poured in for Pat Burns, one of the players on the team, who wrote an open letter objecting to the suspension and the effect on his last year. Still, some alumni applauded the university for choosing to “prioritize concern about sexual violence over appreciation of … sports accomplishments,” as one put it.

In June, 2014, the university announced the cancellation of the entire season. Some players on the team have considered launching legal action.

Ms. Jean’s note arrived two days after police charged the two players.

“We have to see what is yet to be done with the other players,” she wrote. “There is a need for a conversation about the act itself that gave rise to the action of the university, the larger issue of sexual violence, the culture of a sport team, the protectiveness that can give rise to great things as a team but also can provoke silence. In a young mind it can be very conflicting.”

Nearly five months later, Dalhousie is likely considering those very questions.

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