Hockey Canada’s handling of sexual-assault allegations involving eight Canadian Hockey League members, including players with the gold-medal-winning world junior team, reveals a culture problem within the organization that needs to change, federal Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge says.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Ms. St-Onge said the story revealed so far is “extremely horrific and disturbing” and it’s clear that Hockey Canada’s investigative process was inadequate.
“Some of the players that have these allegations against them are probably thriving in [the] NHL right now, and it’s people that – kids, parents – have these Canadians as role models,” Ms. St-Onge said.
In April, a woman filed a $3.55-million lawsuit against Hockey Canada, the Canadian Hockey League and eight of its players. The woman, who is now 24, alleged she was repeatedly assaulted while intoxicated in a London, Ont., hotel room after a 2018 fundraising gala for the Hockey Canada Foundation. None of the players were named in the lawsuit and a settlement was reached between the parties.
The Sport Minister said the handling of the allegations show that Hockey Canada has a culture of silence that fails to hold their own members accountable.
“When there are these types of allegations, they can’t cover up for players or for their members,” Ms. St-Onge said. “People need to be held accountable for their actions.”
On June 20, the standing committee on Canadian Heritage held a hearing to examine how Hockey Canada dealt with the allegations.
During the hearing, Hockey Canada’s chief executive officer, Tom Renney, and president Scott Smith said that the organization conducted an investigation after learning of the alleged sexual assault from the London police the day after it happened. They could not confirm how many players co-operated with the investigation, done by law firm Henein Hutchison, saying players were not obligated to participate in the probe.
Hockey Canada said it notified Sport Canada, which provides funding for national sports bodies, of the incident and said that it offered the young woman support.
Ms. St-Onge has ordered a forensic audit to ensure that Hockey Canada did not use any public funds to pay the out-of-court settlement. The federal government has also frozen funding to Hockey Canada until it fulfills two requirements: disclose the recommendations made during the law firm’s investigation, and sign on to the new Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner.
The office, under the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada, is responsible for independently investigating cases of abuse and mistreatment. It officially began taking complaints on June 20.
Ms. St-Onge said Hockey Canada is lagging behind other national sport organizations in regards to its safe-sport efforts and it needs to do more to bring the organization into the 21st century.
“Their leaders have to be people that actively promote the end of the culture of silence and actively promote the end of sexual violence,” Ms. St-Onge said.
Given that many players in the organization tend to train and live away from home beginning at a younger age, Ms. St-Onge said Hockey Canada needs to have an environment where consent and responsible sexual behaviour is discussed to ensure players become responsible adults and young men.
“The organization has a responsibility towards the kids, and also the public,” she said.
Hockey Canada’s handling of the sexual-assault allegations has caused many sponsors to pull their support from the organization and the IIHF World Junior Championship, which are being held in Edmonton this August. Tim Hortons, Canadian Tire, Imperial Oil Canada and Bank of Nova Scotia pulled their support to the event while Telus and Scotiabank last week said they would “pause” sponsorship.
These actions, the minister said, send a clear, “very strong message” to Hockey Canada that “they need to clean up their organization and clean up their act.” She said all Canadians, including large companies that support Canadian sports, have a responsibility to speak out against sexual violence and the culture of silence.
“The population has higher expectations today, whether it’s sports businesses, sports organizations or their governments, that we stand up and protect the public and protect women and protect kids from sexual violence,” Ms. St-Onge said.
The Globe asked Hockey Canada to respond to the minister’s comments. The organization declined and referred The Globe to its previous statements on the sexual-assault allegations. Its most recent statement on June 28 said that “Hockey Canada is on a journey to change the culture of our sport and to make it safer and more inclusive, both at the rink and in our communities.” It acknowledged that “more needs to be done, and more quickly.”
The minister says she believes that Hockey Canada is capable of changing its culture and behaviour. She said it is important to ensure that women’s hockey is being well supported along with para hockey and the other teams that are part of the larger Hockey Canada umbrella.
“They can’t be impacted negatively, because of the actions of some players and their leaders,” she said.
Committee hearings on Hockey Canada’s conduct into the allegations are scheduled to resume on July 26 and 27 and are expected to hear from several witnesses, including the CHL and the law firm Henein Hutchison. They are also scheduled to review copies of communications by Hockey Canada and Sport Canada related to the incident.
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