A police investigation into allegations of a sexual assault involving multiple hockey players from the University of Ottawa has prompted the indefinite suspension of the entire men's team and coaching staff, and renewed concerns about "rape culture" on campuses.
The alleged assault took place when the U of O visited Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., for a pair of games on Jan. 31 and Feb 1. But the university's leadership only learned of the allegations on Feb. 24 through "a third party," the school said in a statement.
The next day, the university gave its information to the Thunder Bay police, who confirmed on Monday they are in the "initial stages" of an investigation.
The troubling accusation comes just days after the resignation of four student government officials at the U of O over a sexually graphic conversation they had about a female colleague on Facebook. And there has been considerable concern on campuses over the way some students regard sexual violence, especially after peers at two other Canadian universities were caught belting out offensive chants about non-consensual sex during orientation activities last fall.
"This is a matter that we take very seriously. This is a top priority," said U of O communications director Patrick Charette. But he referred detailed questions to police, declining to describe the nature of the incident or to say how many players were involved. University officials have launched an internal investigation, separate from police, and said they are "deeply concerned" they didn't learn of the allegations sooner. Mr. Charette also said Thunder Bay police asked the university not to speak publicly on the matter until Monday.
A statement from the Thunder Bay Police Service said it is "investigating a third-party complaint," not from the alleged victim, and "following up with involved parties" with assistance from Ottawa police. Thunder Bay police declined interview requests.
Allan Rock, the U of O's president, did not speak to media on Monday. But he called Anne-Marie Roy, president of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa, who was also the target of the explicit Facebook chat that led four male student government officials to resign when it became public. Mr. Rock and Ms. Roy plan to meet this week to discuss ways to address issues underlying the two incidents.
The Association of Universities and Colleges is also planning to discuss campus responses to "rape culture."
"It's really hard to fight sexual violence when we have a culture which perpetuates it," said Ms. Roy, who feels these crimes are too often treated lightly, from rape jokes to graphic song lyrics. "Sometimes, I hear students say, 'I raped that exam,'" she said, which "plays down the impact and the gravity of what it actually means."
Still, she is pleased with the U of O's response so far, and stressed that all campuses face similar issues. At least one student told her he heard chants resembling those at Saint Mary's and the University of British Columbia during the U of O's frosh festivities. "They were being chanted on more than just two campuses in Canada, I can tell you that," she said.
The men's hockey season at U of O ended Feb. 21 with a playoff loss. Until further notice, team members can attend classes and academic activities, but are barred from sports and athletic facilities. The team's coaches are also suspended; Mr. Charette would not say when they knew of the alleged incident or whether they're being paid.
"We're going to act as quickly is possible," he said, "but this is serious and we want to make sure that we do due dilligence."