Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Hockey Canada must face a “real reckoning” over the way it has handled allegations of sexual assault, saying the sports organization has much more work to do to regain the trust of Canadians.
He made his criticism even after the national governing body for hockey announced measures to address what it describes as a “culture of toxic behaviour” within the sport, including no longer using a special multimillion-dollar fund to settle claims of alleged sexual assault. Hockey Canada has also reopened a third-party probe into allegations of sexual assault against eight Canadian Hockey League players in London, Ont., in June, 2018, after a Hockey Canada fundraising gala.
“[Hockey Canada’s] behaviour over these past years, and indeed over these past months, has been not worthy of an organization that embodies so many hopes and dreams for young Canadians,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters at an unrelated event in Elmsdale, N.S. “There needs to be a real reckoning with what we saw from that organization, and the willful blindness to something that other organizations have been faced with – struggled with – but made good decisions around, as opposed to what Hockey Canada has been doing.”
The Canadian Press
A recent settlement related to the 2018 case touched off a public firestorm. The federal government suspended its funding to Hockey Canada, and several corporate partners have paused or withdrawn their support for the organization or specific events, such as the World Juniors in Alberta next month. The London Police Service has launched an internal review of its investigation into the 2018 allegations, which concluded without criminal charges.
On Thursday, Ottawa faced calls to freeze funding to another national sports organization. In a public letter to Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge, more than 500 gymnasts said that after months of “devastating stories” about long-standing abuse in their sport, the federal government should pause its financial support for Gymnastics Canada.
The federal Canadian Heritage committee will resume hearings next week into Hockey Canada’s handling of the sexual-assault lawsuit. The next round will feature key witnesses from Hockey Canada, the federal government, the Canadian Hockey League and other organizations.
The committee chair, Liberal MP Hedy Fry, has said the MPs will exercise their “extraordinary privilege” to compel witnesses and obtain information. What emerges could have implications for Hockey Canada’s funding status, the future of its corporate partnerships and its reputation among Canadians.
In May, Hockey Canada settled a lawsuit related to the sexual-assault complaint that was filed in Ontario Superior Court on April 20. The players aren’t named in the claim and haven’t been publicly identified, but they include members of the 2018 world junior hockey team.
The woman alleges she engaged in sexual acts with a player in a hotel room after the gala. Seven other CHL members later entered the room and engaged in a range of sexual acts to which she did not consent, the claim alleges. Throughout, the woman says, she felt an imminent fear of physical harm.
The lawsuit, which sought more than $3.5-million in damages, was settled by Hockey Canada on behalf of the unnamed players on terms that were not disclosed. The allegations have not been tested in court.
Lawyers for seven players sent Hockey Canada a 10-page letter last week accusing the organization of creating a “false narrative” in its public statements and of providing erroneous or misleading information to the committee at the first round of hearings, in June.
For instance, Hockey Canada representatives told the committee the organization notified the players of the claim through their lawyers or 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 was consensual.
Committee members have said they will have tough questions for Hockey Canada at the hearings slated to take place on July 26 and July 27. The two days of testimony will begin with an appearance from Danielle Robitaille, a partner with law firm Henein Hutchison, which conducted the third-party probe into the 2018 allegations.
Hockey Canada announced last week it would reopen that probe. The work had been halted because the woman declined to speak with the investigator. Her lawyer has said she is participating this time.
After Ms. Robitaille’s appearance, the committee will hear from Michel Ruest, a senior director in the Sport Canada branch of the Department of Canadian Heritage, and from Ms. St-Onge, who took on her role last year.
Ms. St-Onge has criticized Hockey Canada and promised to follow its next moves very closely. During the first round of hearings, she said 45 complaints across a number of national sports organizations had been reported to Sport Canada since 2018, when reporting allegations of abuse and maltreatment became mandatory.
Ms. St-Onge was unable to provide MPs at the time with details about those complaints, but her deputy minister said the department would provide further information to the committee. The minister will likely be asked next week about the financial audit she launched to ensure Hockey Canada didn’t use taxpayer dollars in the settlement. She told the committee last month a draft of the audit report is expected at the end of August.
Testimony will continue on July 27, with an appearance from Glen McCurdie, who retired as Hockey Canada’s senior vice-president of insurance and risk management in December. An affidavit from Mr. McCurdie in an unrelated injury lawsuit 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. Committee members have said they intend to ask him about that fund.
Also scheduled to appear next week are three current and former Hockey Canada representatives who testified last month – chief executive officer Scott Smith, former CEO Tom Renney, and the chair of the Hockey Canada Foundation, Dave Andrews. In an interview this week, Ms. Fry said the committee was “not very happy with the answers and disclosure” the Hockey Canada representatives provided at the initial hearings.
The witness list for July 27 also includes representatives of leagues that are under the umbrella of Hockey Canada, and the president of a liability insurance company.
“We want to get to the bottom of this for one simple reason: Hockey is Canada’s national sport, and hockey has taken a big hit with this story,” Ms. Fry said. “We want clarification. We want transparency. We want questions answered.”
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