After Hockey Canada was criticized by federal MPs in July for mishandling an investigation into alleged sexual assault, and for failing to disclose key information during testimony, the organization’s board met and decided it needed to shift the message with the Canadian public.
The perception of Hockey Canada and its National Equity Fund – a financial reserve built using player registration fees that the organization used to settle a $3.55-million lawsuit without fully investigating the allegations, or disclosing to parents and players how their money was being used – needed to be reframed, the board decided.
But Hockey Canada’s focus on how it was perceived by the public rather than the flaws in its handling of the alleged sexual assault drew harsh criticism from MPs at federal hearings in Ottawa on Tuesday.
According to notes from the board’s meeting, which were brought to light at the parliamentary hearings, Hockey Canada wanted to put a more positive spin on the fund, which it had not previously disclosed was used to cover sexual assault settlements.
“It was encouraged to get the message into the public, get ahead of communication and shift the narrative,” Conservative MP John Nater said at the hearings, reading from Hockey Canada’s board minutes, which Hockey Canada was ordered to turn over to the federal probe.
Faced with criticism from MPs and Canadians over its lack of disclosure about the fund’s use in sexual assault claims, Hockey Canada wanted to shift public perception, saying “the National Equity Fund is in place to protect children and our programs, and to take care of any victims. Settlement payments must be viewed in a positive manner, not in a negative manner,” the meeting notes say.
Further, it wanted this message put into the public discourse by Hockey Canada executives and spokespeople again and again.
“Repetition is required to state the narrative,” the notes say.
Hockey Canada’s past chair, Michael Brind’Amour, who resigned in August, and its interim chair, Andrea Skinner, were called to testify at the latest hearings on Tuesday.
Mr. Nater told them he was disturbed that Hockey Canada appeared to put more emphasis on its media perception than addressing its own deficiencies relating to a sexual assault investigation involving members of the 2018 national junior team, which MPs have said they believe the organization tried to cover up.
”I find this deeply troubling, that the organization is more concerned about shifting the narrative than actually meaningfully implementing change within this organization,” Mr. Nater said.
The hearings were instigated this summer to probe Hockey Canada’s handling of an investigation into an incident where a woman alleged she was sexually assaulted by several members of the 2018 world junior team after a Hockey Canada fundraiser.
Hockey Canada settled the $3.55-million lawsuit in May for an undisclosed sum, a few weeks after it was filed. Executives acknowledged in June that it did so without completing a full investigation into the matter. “We didn’t know all the details of the night, but we did believe harm was caused,” Hockey Canada CEO Brian Cairo said at previous hearings.
Lawyers for the players, who are not named in the lawsuit, deny the allegations. Police in London, Ont., where the alleged assault took place, have since reopened their investigation.
After TSN reported the settlement, Hockey Canada reassured major sponsors such as Scotiabank and Canadian Tire, as well as the government, that no sponsorship or federal money was used to pay out the sexual assault settlement on behalf of the players allegedly involved. However, when asked by MPs at earlier hearings what money was used, Hockey Canada executives said only that it liquidated investments to cover the undisclosed amount. Executives made no mention at hearings in June that the National Equity Fund, made up of player registration fees across Canada, was used.
After subsequent hearings in July, Hockey Canada hired crisis communications firm Navigator. During a meeting on Aug. 2 the board decided it was necessary to confront media reporting on the alleged sexual assaults, pushing back against criticism over its use of a fund built by registration fees.
“We are a family and need to push back hard,” the board’s meeting minutes said. “We need to start defending and stop sitting in the neutral zone.”
Soon after, Hockey Canada began playing down the use of the National Equity Fund for settling sexual assault claims, which is how it was defined in Hockey Canada court documents, and instead started highlighting other things the fund contributed to, such as concussion research.
On Monday, The Globe and Mail reported Hockey Canada set up a second fund for potential sexual assault claims that was also fed by registration fees. According to Hockey Canada documents filed in Alberta court, the Participants Legacy Trust Fund was created in 1999 by Hockey Canada and its members, including provincial hockey associations, with more than $7.1-million from the National Equity Fund. The money was earmarked “for matters including but not limited to sexual abuse,” the documents say.
The trust was set up to handle claims against Hockey Canada’s member branches for incidents occurring from 1986 to 1995, before Hockey Canada began purchasing insurance for sexual assault claims and other liabilities. It covered an era when the sport was hit with numerous sexual abuse cases, including those associated with disgraced coach Graham James.
The trust was supposed to end on May 15, 2020, known as its Division Date, but was extended until 2039.
“The trustees believe that more claims will be brought after the Division Date as currently defined, and this is the primary reason to extend the duration of the trust,” Mr. Cairo said in an affidavit filed in January, 2019, in Alberta court.
The Globe investigation included Hockey Canada’s assertion that the trust had not been used to pay out any claims to date, but that it remained in place for its stated purpose.
At the hearings on Tuesday, Liberal MP Anthony Housefather asked why Hockey Canada, also known as the Canadian Hockey Association, issued a statement on Monday, after the article was published, stating that “It is inaccurate to report that the Participants Legacy Trust Fund was used to settle sexual assault claims and any suggestion otherwise is false.”
Mr. Housefather suggested Hockey Canada was misleading the public.
“Then why in 2019 in the affidavit that was filed by Brian Cairo, your employee, did it say in paragraph 5, ‘The trust was established to fund claims made against the Canadian Hockey Association for matters including but not limited to sexual abuse’?” Mr. Housefather asked.
“It would seem to me, then, that sexual abuse and sexual assault were potential claims that could be settled under this fund. But yesterday’s statement made it seem like it couldn’t be.”
Ms. Skinner said she could not answer the question. She said the trust had been misconstrued in the media. However, she then went on to confirm, as The Globe reported, that the trust was indeed created using $7.1-million from the National Equity Fund.
She then confirmed further details of The Globe story, including that the trust had not been used to cover a claim, but was in place to address possible future claims related to the period of 1985-95. She also confirmed that Hockey Canada believes more claims are possible from that era because sexual assault claims can be filed many years after the fact, which had also been reported.
MPs criticized Hockey Canada several times at the hearing for not being forthcoming, and not answering questions.
The parliamentary committee has called for management and the board of Hockey Canada to resign over their handling of the 2018 incident.
Ms. Skinner and Mr. Brind’Amour repeated Hockey Canada’s past statements that the organization settled the case quickly, without a full investigation, to prevent the woman involved from being subject to a difficult litigation process. Mr. Housefather, a lawyer, has called the settlement highly unusual since Hockey Canada settled a claim against players it said it could not identify, without determining the facts of the case.
Liberal MP Lisa Hepfner questioned whether paying the claim without investigating the circumstances sends a message to players that Hockey Canada will cover any problems, and that the players aren’t held responsible. Ms. Skinner said Hockey Canada wants the players to be held accountable if investigations that are now under way determine wrongdoing.
Bloc MP Sébastien Lemire repeated a call for management to resign, and questioned Hockey Canada for conducting polling recently that asked people whether they think the criticism it has faced from politicians, the media, and the public, has been unfair. He suggested Hockey Canada was trying to blame others for the problems.
“I find it ironic that you say that the media misrepresented things, because that is also what was said in the poll that you used to perhaps try and change public opinion. But there are questions that remain unanswered,” Mr. Lemire said.
“Parliamentarians and Canadians no longer trust Hockey Canada,” Mr. Lemire said, calling its handling of the case an example of a lack of transparency and the result of a culture of silence.
“If we can’t understand things, it’s not necessarily our fault. Perhaps it’s that Hockey Canada also is not transparent enough, and it seems that hockey players are above the law.”
Ms. Skinner, a lawyer who joined the board in late 2020 and was named chair two months ago, said the board of directors does not think Hockey Canada executives, including its CEO Scott Smith, should resign. She suggested Hockey Canada was being made a scapegoat.
“Our board frankly does not share the view that senior leadership should be replaced on the basis of what we consider to be substantial misinformation and unduly cynical attacks,” Ms. Skinner said.
“I appreciate that others disagree with us. But our positions are based on the information that we have and the understanding that Hockey Canada has an excellent reputation. I do not fault senior management or the board with respect to the way the 2018 sexual assault was handled. I believe the appropriate steps were taken.”
She said the management should stay in place. “We need stability at this time,” Ms. Skinner said.