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Former Hockey Canada executive Bob Nicholson is seen on a television as he waits to appear as a witness virtually at the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, in Ottawa on Nov. 15.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Hockey Canada hasn’t gone far enough in the past to address problems related to sexual assault, including inappropriate conduct by players and a culture of silence within the sport, former chief executive officer Bob Nicholson told a parliamentary hearing in Ottawa.

Mr. Nicholson, who served as CEO of Hockey Canada from 1998 to 2014, said the organization took steps to confront sexual abuse after incidents related to disgraced former junior coach Graham James and others became known in the 1990s. But he said recent allegations involving players on the 2003 and 2018 national junior teams show that more should have been done.

“I am proud of the progress we’ve made. It is clear that we didn’t go nearly far enough, particularly regarding off-ice conduct. It is perhaps a failure to see that then, that brings us here today,” Mr. Nicholson told the hearing of the Commons committee on Canadian heritage.

Mr. Nicholson said he regretted that there was not more focus placed on “the culture of silence that appears to persist to this day” within the game. He also said he regretted not putting in place formal policies on how Hockey Canada handles sexual assault claims.

“You know what, I wish I could go back, I wish I could have put more policies in,” he said.

Among the things he said he wished he had addressed was Hockey Canada’s practice of not keeping records of board meetings where legal settlements are discussed. The practice allows such processes to escape scrutiny or accountability. “That was something that I would have liked to have done. I didn’t. And I’m sorry about that,” he added.

The committee is investigating Hockey Canada’s handling of the alleged sexual assaults involving unnamed members of the 2018 and 2003 junior teams. MPs have accused Hockey Canada of trying to cover up the 2018 incident, and not fully investigating the allegations in order to protect its brand.

The 2018 case only came to light after the organization settled a $3.55-million lawsuit this spring, for an undisclosed amount. A woman alleged she had been sexually assaulted by several players following a Hockey Canada gala that summer.

“Let me say up front that the allegations about the incident at the 2018 gala and the 2003 world junior tournament are an outrage,” Mr. Nicholson said. “That kind of conduct has no place in our game, or our society. I hope both cases are investigated fully, and that justice is done.”

Police in London, Ont. have reopened an investigation into the 2018 incident, and police in Halifax are investigating the 2003 allegations.

At a previous meeting of the committee in June, Hockey Canada executives gave vague answers about how the 2018 case was investigated and where the organization got the money for the lawsuit, which was settled in a matter of weeks. Executives said no federal funding was used, and reassured sponsors their money wasn’t linked to the sexual assault case.

Hockey Canada did not disclose to the public that registration fees from players across the country were used to pay for the lawsuit. In July, the Globe and Mail was first to report that Hockey Canada operated a multimillion-dollar financial reserve known as the National Equity Fund, which is made up of participant fees, to settle sexual assault claims outside of court, without telling parents and players how their money was used.

A subsequent Globe investigation in October revealed Hockey Canada created a second reserve, known as the Participants Legacy Trust Fund, using $7.1-million worth of registration money transferred from the National Equity Fund. That reserve could also be used to shield the organization, and its provincial members, from potential sexual assault lawsuits.

Following those revelations, a governance review by retired Supreme Court justice Thomas Cromwell last month revealed that Hockey Canada had created a third such fund using money from the National Equity Fund, also without public disclosure.

After MPs criticized Hockey Canada for amassing secret funds with money from participants, the organization sought to put a positive spin on the financial reserves, internal documents show.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Mr. Nicholson referenced Mr. Cromwell’s governance review, which said the use of funds to guard against legal liabilities can be a sound business practice. But Mr. Nicholson did not mention that Mr. Cromwell had also harshly criticized Hockey Canada’s National Equity Fund for how it was operated, including its lack of accountability and transparency.

The governance review detailed significant problems with the National Equity Fund, and raised troubling questions about payments made from it using participants’ money. On at least six occasions, Mr. Cromwell found, Hockey Canada withdrew more than $500,000 from the reserve, but did not keep proper records or fully disclose those transactions to its members.

Hockey Canada’s auditors, along with Mr. Cromwell, also determined the amount of money kept in those reserve funds is excessive and not justifiable based on information supplied by the organization itself.

As well, the review determined that several things for which Hockey Canada claimed publicly that the National Equity Fund was used, such as player health and wellness programs, could not be found in its financial records.

“It turns out that that was absolutely false,” Liberal MP Anthony Housefather told the hearing. “So basically it seems to me that there’s a communications strategy to advise the public that the fund had various good things in addition to the negative. And that’s what scares me.”

MPs have called Hockey Canada’s positive spin on the fund, including its interpretation of Mr. Cromwell’s report, highly selective, since the report was not an exoneration of the National Equity Fund.

Hockey Canada did not disclose details of its funds prior to The Globe’s investigations. Mr. Nicholson acknowledged the existence of all three funds on Tuesday.

“I can tell you that when I left Hockey Canada that those funds were in the neighbourhood of $40-to-$50-million,” he said. “The goal at that time was to make sure that we had enough funds if something drastic happened to Hockey Canada or various levels below us.”

Notes in Hockey Canada’s financial statements say the National Equity Fund exists to cover uninsurable claims from “sanctioned hockey activities.” Mr. Housefather asked if Hockey Canada considers the 2018 case – which involves alleged sexual assaults in a hotel room following a fundraising gala – a sanctioned hockey activity.

“It was not a sanctioned hockey activity,” Pat McLaughlin, Hockey Canada’s senior vice-president of strategy, operations and brand, acknowledged in response.

Those comments raise new questions about Hockey Canada’s use of the fund to settle the lawsuit, and whether doing so violated its own policies and statements, including those it gave to its auditors.

Tuesday’s hearings were the fourth time executives were called to testify, after appearances in June, July and October that saw MPs criticize Hockey Canada for not providing sufficient answers to key questions.

NDP MP Peter Julian asked how much Hockey Canada spent to hire Navigator, a crisis communications firm, which he suggested has contributed to it stonewalling during testimony.

Mr. McLaughlin said Hockey Canada has spent $1.6-million to date on Navigator.

Mr. Julian referenced internal Hockey Canada meeting minutes that show the board sought to “shift the narrative” in the public eye and fight back against criticism, including reporting by the media. MPs have criticized Hockey Canada for focusing more on public perception than on the problems the committee has been trying to address.

After repeated calls from politicians, sponsors and the public for change at the organization, Hockey Canada CEO Scott Smith departed last month, interim chair Andrea Skinner resigned and the board of directors announced it was stepping down.

Mr. McLaughlin attempted to strike a new tone at Tuesday’s hearings, saying the organization has heard the criticism.

“We have heard you. Hockey Canada must change, and it must do so urgently,” he said. “Canadians expect and deserve meaningful action, and our organization quite honestly has been too slow to act.”

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