A Liberal MP from Alberta is demanding Ottawa stop funding the Calgary Stampede after the organization reached a settlement agreement tied to allegations its officials failed for decades to protect boys in one of its marquee youth programs from a sexual predator.
A class-action lawsuit, launched in 2017, alleged senior officials with the Calgary Stampede did not act on multiple reports that Philip Heerema, an adult working with the Young Canadians, the glittery song and dance group that headlines the festival’s Grandstand Show each evening, had inappropriate relationships with troupe members. Stampede has agreed to accept “responsibility for liability” and pay 100 per cent of damages that are awarded or assessed, according to the proposed agreement announced Wednesday in court.
George Chahal, an MP from Calgary and former city councillor, in a Thursday statement to The Globe and Mail condemned Stampede’s “years of inaction” and argued the proposed deal is a testament to how far the not-for-profit was willing to go to sweep “horrific crimes under the rug.” He pledged to lobby his colleagues in the federal government to halt support for the 10-day annual festival, putting at risk millions of dollars worth of infrastructure grants and wage subsidies that benefit Albertans.
“Not a single taxpayer dollar should support an organization that has shown such blatant disregard for the well-being of our youth,” Mr. Chahal said in a statement. “Federal funding should only be reconsidered when the victims themselves feel that genuine accountability and reconciliation have occurred.”
Ottawa recently earmarked $4.5-million to help Stampede build the $44-million Sam Centre, which is under construction. The federal government, through the Department of Canadian Heritage, doled out $1.6-million to support the project in 2022 and $715,800 the year prior, according to Stampede’s 2022 financial statements. Ottawa handed Stampede $24,647 through the Canada Summer Jobs Program to subsidize youth wages in 2022, compared with $15,666 the year prior. The federal government also gave Stampede $247,228 in 2021, through the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy program.
The Calgary Stampede is one of the most important events on Canada’s political calendar. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, like his predecessors, has been a mainstay despite his government having only two seats in Alberta. Mr. Chahal’s call to cut Stampede’s funding could fuel accusations the federal Liberals have no time for Alberta. On the other hand, Mr. Chahal, who remains a backbench MP after this week’s cabinet shuffle, framed himself as a champion for sexual-assault victims.
“For decades, members of The Young Canadians entrusted the Calgary Stampede with their dreams, their abilities, and most importantly, their safety,” he said. “What they received in return was a systematic betrayal.”
Jason Coxford, a spokesman for Stampede, said it would not be “appropriate” for his organization to comment on Mr. Chahal’s proposal or detail its potential fallout.
Gavin Price, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said Mr. Chahal’s office did not consult him or his clients prior to calling for the funding freeze. “The class would welcome attention to the matter and they would welcome momentum toward a resolution of damages,” Mr. Price said.
Lawyers for Stampede and the plaintiffs announced their proposed settlement Wednesday. It must be approved by a judge, and the parties still have to negotiate the financial terms of the deal.
Mr. Heerema was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2018 for sexually exploitive acts related to six members of the Young Canadians. He was convicted for incidents that took place between 1992 and 2014.
The class-action lawsuit, however, alleged a Young Canadian, in 1988, told the Grandstand Show’s top executive that Mr. Heerema abused him. Court documents also allege an instructor with the Young Canadians, in 2008, filed a formal complaint about Mr. Heerema, indicating he was “extremely inappropriate” with the boys. Stampede’s inaction in light of such information, the lawsuit alleged, allowed Mr. Heerema to abuse boys for decades.
The court documents indicate his abusive behaviour affected more youth than previously known. The allegations have not been tested in court.
The Calgary Exhibition and Stampede Ltd. and the Calgary Stampede Foundation, in court documents filed as recently as June, denied wrongdoing and argued they were not liable for Mr. Heerema’s actions. Stampede’s Mr. Coxford did not address why the organization shifted tactics.
“With this settlement agreement, the Calgary Stampede has taken responsibility in the hopes of helping the victims to heal,” he said in a statement. “We can’t change the events of the past, but we are deeply sorry for how the victims have been affected.”