Federal MPs say they expect more transparency from Hockey Canada at hearings this week after a review by former Supreme Court justice Thomas Cromwell revealed that the organization has made inaccurate and misleading statements to the public in recent months.
Hockey Canada returns to parliamentary committee hearings on Tuesday, which are probing its handling of sexual-assault allegations involving players on the 2018 national junior team. Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, one of the committee members, said there is a heightened level of skepticism going in, given previous statements from the organization. And fellow committee member NDP MP Peter Julian is calling for Hockey Canada to be more forthcoming in its testimony.
Mr. Housefather said the hearings, which began in June, have been unusually combative.
“For those people who are watching these hearings, parliamentarians normally do not question witnesses at committees like this. At least I don’t,” said Mr. Housefather, who is a lawyer. “This is a very different situation, which seems to be more one where you have a hostile witness in a courtroom and you have to try to gain the ability to get some information that they’re not trying to share with you.”
A governance report on Hockey Canada by Mr. Cromwell, released this month, has raised new questions about the accuracy of the organization’s public statements.
Hockey Canada faced intense criticism this summer after The Globe and Mail revealed that it kept a financial reserve known as the National Equity Fund, made up of participant registration fees, to settle sexual-assault claims outside of court, without disclosing to parents and players how their money was being used.
In response to the criticism, Hockey Canada issued public statements saying that the National Equity Fund was also used to provide health and wellness programs, including “counselling and treatment for players.”
However, Mr. Cromwell could not find evidence of this in Hockey Canada’s financial records. After those discrepancies were flagged in his preliminary report in October, a single line inserted into his final report this month revealed that Hockey Canada has since acknowledged the National Equity Fund did not cover those programs.
Mr. Housefather said it wasn’t the only such problem.
After The Globe revealed the existence of a second reserve in October, known as the Participants Legacy Trust Fund, which could also be used to settle sexual-assault cases, Hockey Canada was asked at hearings that week if any other such funds existed. Former interim board chair Andrea Skinner said she didn’t believe there were any others.
A week later, Mr. Cromwell revealed, in fact, that Hockey Canada had created a third multimillion-dollar reserve, using surplus money from the National Equity Fund that could be used to settle such cases.
“They misled,” Mr. Housefather said. “I asked Skinner directly, is there any other fund? There are two funds that we now know about, is there a third fund? And she said there was not. But there was.”
Mr. Cromwell’s findings detailed numerous oversight and governance problems with the National Equity Fund and throughout the organization. Ms. Skinner resigned last month, CEO Scott Smith left, and the board also announced it was stepping down.
Given how the hearings have gone, Mr. Julian said the public deserves a different approach from Hockey Canada this week.
“There just needs to be transparency and honesty and integrity in the answers that are provided, and I think it’s fair to say there is a skepticism throughout the committee that we’ll get that,” Mr. Julian said.
Tuesday’s hearings will include testimony from Bob Nicholson, Hockey Canada’s former CEO, and Pat McLaughlin, its senior vice-president of strategy, operations and brand.
In addition to questions about the 2018 case, which was settled without a full investigation, allegations of sexual assault have been made against unnamed members of the 2003 national junior team. Police in London have since reopened their investigation into the 2018 case, while police in Halifax are also investigating the 2003 allegations.
The 2018 case only emerged in the public eye this spring when TSN obtained court documents detailing the settlement, leading MPs to accuse Hockey Canada of trying to cover up the situation to protect its brand.
Mr. Nicholson was CEO from 1998 to 2014 and had a role in designing Hockey Canada’s policies and structures. Mr. McLaughlin is expected to face questions about Hockey Canada’s hiring of crisis communications firm Navigator, which was part of an effort to change the public’s perception of the crisis and push back against media asking questions about the alleged sexual assaults.
At hearings in October, MPs read aloud meeting minutes from Hockey Canada’s board in which the organization said it wanted to “shift the narrative” for the public and put a positive spin on its use of player registration fees to settle sexual-assault lawsuits. The strategy was in response to a public backlash over the use of registration money for this purpose, without disclosing it, and without holding any of the players allegedly involved financially accountable. Hockey Canada said it believes harm was caused in the 2018 case.
Mr. Julian said he wasn’t surprised by Mr. Cromwell’s findings, which he believes confirm some of the problems the committee has seen in the testimony. Hockey Canada’s approach has ultimately prolonged the process, Mr. Julian said.
“When we originally undertook this, it was with the idea that we would be getting answers around these horrendous allegations of sexual violence,“ Mr. Julian said. “And we would get answers from Hockey Canada that would provide Canadians with some assurance as to how Hockey Canada would be handling any future allegations – and what they were doing to put in place a zero-tolerance policy around sexual violence and sexual abuse.”
“The appalling nature of the answers in that first hearing has led to everything else.”