The federal committee investigating Hockey Canada’s handling of a sexual-assault lawsuit says it will exercise its “extraordinary privilege” to compel witnesses and obtain information, as it seeks a full accounting of what happened after a woman accused eight Canadian Hockey League players of sexually assaulting her in 2018.
The Canadian Heritage committee is preparing for another round of high-profile, public hearings next week, with more testimony expected from Hockey Canada, federal officials and others. The information that comes out of the hearings could have implications for Hockey Canada’s funding status, for the future of its corporate partnerships and for its reputation among Canadians.
In the month since hearings were last held, there have been significant revelations, including the existence of a special multimillion-dollar fund that Hockey Canada uses to pay out settlements in cases of alleged sexual assault without its insurance company, and with minimal outside scrutiny. Details of the fund, which is fed by the registration fees of players across the country, were unearthed in a Globe and Mail investigation published Tuesday.
“A standing committee of Parliament has extraordinary privilege to get testimony, to call witnesses and to get documents to do its job,” said Hedy Fry, the Liberal chair of the committee. “We, as a committee, will be taking advantage of all the parliamentary privilege that we have.”
In May, Hockey Canada settled the sexual-assault lawsuit, which was filed in Ontario Superior Court on April 20. The players aren’t named in the claim and they haven’t been publicly identified, but they include members of the country’s 2018 world junior hockey team.
Hockey Canada’s handling of the claim has kicked off a public firestorm. The federal government has frozen funding to the national governing body for hockey, and several major corporate sponsors have temporarily withdrawn their support.
Hockey Canada said Tuesday the fund will be reviewed as part of a third-party governance examination of the organization.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau weighed in on the controversy, describing Hockey Canada’s special fund as “absolutely unacceptable.”
“I think right now it’s hard for anyone in Canada to have faith or trust in anyone at Hockey Canada. What we’re learning today is absolutely unacceptable,” he said at a news conference Tuesday on B.C.’s Bowen Island. “There must be a reckoning and there need to be consequences for people who are responsible for that deep lack of respect for the institution.”
Federal Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge described news of the fund as “extremely concerning.” She said the government was right to push forward last month with steps to hold Hockey Canada’s leadership to account. “We will continue to follow Hockey Canada’s next steps very closely, to ensure that a shift in culture occurs within the organization and the sport,” she said in an e-mailed statement.
Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, who was a corporate lawyer before getting into politics, said the committee will have “tons of questions” for the sports organization next week, especially since Hockey Canada provided “deficient” responses at the last hearing.
“This was never about one incident,” he said. “It’s about how Hockey Canada administers itself.” On the fund, he said Hockey Canada representatives should come prepared with details. “How many years has this fund existed? Who decided it should exist? How is it funded? Who knows about the fund? How many suits have been settled using this fund over time?” he said.
In addition to the fund, other new information has emerged in recent days that will inevitably be front and centre when hearings resume next week.
Hockey Canada reopened a third-party investigation into the 2018 allegations, after the probe was halted because the woman declined to speak with the investigator. The woman, who is referred to in the civil suit as E.M, is participating this time around.
Lawyers representing seven of the players sent Hockey Canada a 10-page letter last week, accusing the organization of creating a “false narrative” and providing erroneous or misleading information to the committee.
For instance, Hockey Canada representatives told the committee that the organization notified the players of the claim through their lawyers or via their teams. The players’ lawyers say this is not true, and that their clients weren’t given the opportunity to challenge the claim. Their clients deny wrongdoing and maintain that any sexual contact between the female plaintiff and the players was consensual.
In the lawsuit, the woman alleges that she went to a hotel room with one player and engaged in sexual acts with that player after a Hockey Canada fundraising gala in London, Ont., in June, 2018. Seven other CHL members are alleged to have later entered the room without her consent and engaged in a range of sexual acts to which she did not consent, the claim states. Throughout, she alleges, she felt an imminent fear of physical harm.
The lawsuit, which sought more than $3.5-million in damages, was settled on terms that were not disclosed. The claims have not been tested in court.
According to the minutes of a closed-door committee meeting on June 22, the MPs agreed to call the following as witnesses next week: federal officials, including Ms. St-Onge; CHL representatives; Henein Hutchison, the law firm conducting the third-party probe; the president of a liability insurance company; and Hockey Canada representatives, including Glen McCurdie, who retired as senior vice-president of insurance and risk management in December.
In the course of the discovery process of an unrelated injury lawsuit, Mr. McCurdie gave an affidavit that provided evidence of the multimillion-dollar fund. It said Hockey Canada didn’t merely protect itself from liability in alleged sexual-assault cases through its standard insurance policies, it also operated a special fund to cover potential uninsured liabilities.
In terms of disclosure, the committee has sought copies of the non-disclosure agreement in relation to the settlement, as well as records of communications between Hockey Canada and other organizations.
“Hockey Canada has delivered to the Heritage Committee a number of documents in accordance with a motion passed on June 22, 2022,” the organization said in an e-mail. “We have also ensured the documents provided maintain the privacy of the young woman involved, as well as the integrity of the ongoing investigation.”
Hockey Canada said it is working with the committee to provide the disclosure “while respecting the confidentiality of our partners, unrelated employee HR matters, and other matters not relevant to the committee’s work.”
Ms. Fry said that although the committee is “not interested in a witch-hunt” for the identities of the players, it wants access to unredacted documents. She said the committee has no desire to publicly name names, and would take steps to ensure the information doesn’t leave the committee.
NDP MP Peter Julian, who is a member of the committee, referred to “discrepancies” between the accounts provided by Hockey Canada and the players’ lawyers. “It’s crucial that this type of incident is never allowed to happen again,” he said in an e-mail, “and that begins with an open, honest account of what happened.”
Hockey Canada is under pressure from the players’ lawyers to preserve their clients’ privacy. In their letter to the organization, the lawyers asked that Hockey Canada “redact any personal identifiers from documentary evidence produced to the committee” and that it seek assurances from the committee that the members will not disclose the players’ names.
“There is the real risk that our clients’ identities will be revealed during the ongoing committee hearings, possibly by Hockey Canada itself, in the production of its interim report, or otherwise,” the lawyers said. “In the current environment, where the false allegations in E.M.’s claim are being taken as true, this would cause incalculable and irreparable damage to our clients’ reputations and careers.”
Ms. Fry said one way or another, the committee will get to the bottom of what happened – and it won’t accept incomplete information from Hockey Canada. “We weren’t happy with Hockey Canada saying [at the last hearing], ‘We weren’t expecting that question, so we don’t have an answer,’ she said. “That’s not going to happen this time.”
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