Ottawa was told by Hockey Canada in 2018 about sexual-assault allegations involving members of that year’s Canadian world junior team but didn’t follow up with the organization about the complaint for four years, according to federal officials.
Until this past spring, Sport Canada had thought a police investigation into the alleged assault in London, Ont., was continuing, according to Isabelle Mondou, deputy minister for the Department of Canadian Heritage, which oversees Sport Canada. She said it wasn’t until May – when Hockey Canada reached out to inform Sport Canada that the allegations were about to become public – that the government realized the London Police Service had concluded its probe, without charges, in early 2019.
The revelation emerged Tuesday during high-profile, public testimony before the Canadian Heritage parliamentary committee, which is examining Hockey Canada’s handling of sexual-assault allegations. While the conduct of the national governing body for hockey had been the focal point of hearings that took place in June, it was Ottawa that was under a microscope Tuesday.
In addition to the 2018 allegations, which are now the subject of a reopened police investigation, authorities in Halifax are investigating an alleged sexual assault involving members of the country’s 2003 world junior team.
The federal government froze its funding to Hockey Canada after it was revealed in the media that the organization had settled a $3.55-million lawsuit on behalf of eight Canadian Hockey League players accused of sexually assaulting a woman after a Hockey Canada fundraising gala in London in June, 2018. The players are not named in the lawsuit and have not been publicly identified, nor has the amount of the settlement been revealed.
While several Sport Canada officials were aware in 2018 that London police were investigating the allegations, the matter was not escalated to the attention of then-minister Kirsty Duncan. Sport Canada senior director Michel Ruest, who was among those who knew four years ago about the alleged incident, told the committee that, to his knowledge, transition documents to subsequent ministers did not include information about the allegations.
In her second appearance before the committee, Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge told MPs that the federal branch must do a better job of following up on complaints of sexual assault and abuse in sport. She also said the government is considering measures to strengthen its monitoring of national sport organizations, which are subject to federal funding agreements.
Asked by Bloc Québécois MP Sébastien Lemire if she is satisfied with how Sport Canada handled the 2018 allegations, Ms. St-Onge said there’s room for improvement. “When I say that everyone within sports and Canada needs to rethink their way of doing things, I think that also includes Sport Canada,” she said.
Sheldon Kennedy, a sexual-abuse survivor and former National Hockey League player, called for the immediate resignation of Hockey Canada chief executive Scott Smith, along with his leadership team and board of directors.
“The same people with a new plan expecting different results is the definition of insanity,” he wrote in a statement posted to social media. “Enough is enough already.”
Ms. St-Onge didn’t go so far as to say that Hockey Canada executives and directors should resign, but she questioned whether the people leading the organization are fit to bring about the change in culture they have promised in recent days.
Conservative committee member John Nater, who forwarded information to Halifax police that he had recently received about the alleged 2003 assault, took the minister to task, asking if the same standard of reflection applies to the government.
“The person to your right knew of the allegations four years ago,” he said, referring to Mr. Ruest. “[He] did not inform the minister’s office and did not follow up. You’ve made mention that you’re not sure that the current leadership at Hockey Canada is the right individuals to carry on, but I question you, do you think the person sitting next to you is the right person to be leading change within Sport Canada?”
Ms. St-Onge responded that Sport Canada is not a regulatory body with powers to investigate, and noted that the branch has taken steps to improve the culture in sport. For example, it recently created the federal Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner, whose mandate is to confront serious complaints of abuse and maltreatment in sport.
Mr. Nater said no one was suggesting Sport Canada should investigate allegations; rather, that it should at least monitor the status of serious complaints to ensure they’re properly dealt with.
“[Sport Canada officials] took note on a piece of paper and nothing more happened with that – it was kept in a filing cabinet somewhere,” he said. “They took note and then did nothing.”
Committee members also asked about Hockey Canada’s use of a special multimillion-dollar fund – fed by player registration fees – to settle claims of alleged sexual assault. The fund was detailed in a recent Globe and Mail investigation.
Mr. Ruest said the government was aware of the National Equity Fund, but didn’t know that it was used to pay for settlements in sexual-assault claims. Hockey Canada has said it will no longer use the fund for that purpose.
Tuesday’s hearings centred on Sport Canada, but the day began with testimony from Danielle Robitaille, a partner at law firm Henein Hutchison, which was retained by Hockey Canada to conduct an independent investigation into the 2018 allegations. Hockey Canada announced earlier this month that it was reopening that probe, after the work was initially halted in 2020 because the woman was not willing to speak with the lead investigator.
Ms. Robitaille’s opening statement provided details about what transpired in the wake of the gala held on June 18, 2018. She said she spoke with Glen McCurdie, who retired as Hockey Canada senior vice-president of insurance and risk management in December, on the morning of June 19, 2018. She said she advised him that Hockey Canada should immediately contact police. Mr. Smith, the Hockey Canada CEO, told the committee last month that the organization contacted London police around 6 p.m. that day.
Ms. Robitaille said that of the 19 players who attended the gala, 10 participated in initial interviews; seven said they wouldn’t participate until the police investigation concluded; and two declined. She clarified that she now understands that the latter two only meant to suspend their participation until the end of the police investigation, not outright decline.
This time around, she said, if players do not co-operate in the investigation, they will receive a lifetime ban from participating in Hockey Canada programs. That ban, she added, would be made public.
Ms. Robitaille declined to answer a number of questions from MPs, including whether she is aware of the identities of the eight players involved in the alleged incident, citing instructions from Hockey Canada not to waive solicitor-client privilege.
She assured the committee that she is “laser focused” on deciphering what happened in London four years ago. “We do not yet know what did or did not occur,” she said. “The goal of the investigation is to uncover the truth.”
On Wednesday, Hockey Canada representatives will return for a second round of testimony, including Mr. Smith, former CEO Tom Renney, and the chair of the Hockey Canada Foundation, Dave Andrews. Mr. McCurdie will testify for the first time. The witness list also includes representatives from leagues under the Hockey Canada umbrella.
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