Former Canada Soccer president Nick Bontis will not appear before the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage in Ottawa on Monday, because of what his lawyers say is a personal matter.
In a letter addressed to the committee and obtained by The Globe and Mail, Bontis’s lawyers say he is in no state of mind to attend, after receiving news this week of a death.
Over the past year, Bontis was the victim in a criminal-harassment case, the letter says, which led to the Hamilton Police Service charging a person, and Bontis learned Wednesday that the person had unexpectedly died.
Bontis had accepted an invitation from the committee, which wants to question Canada Soccer executives over concerns about transparency and gender equity being raised by its women’s national team.
Reached Friday by phone, Earl Cochrane, Canada Soccer’s general secretary, said Bontis kept the organization and board members informed about the criminal-harassment case. He said Bontis received 280 e-mails, pertaining to his role as a sport leader, from the person over 14 months. They contained a range of threats and demands, which left Bontis fearful. Cochrane declined to elaborate on the nature of the threats.
Cochrane said Bontis initially planned to testify, but that changed on Wednesday.
“We thought it was important for him to be in the right mind space to appear,” Cochrane said. “This really weighed on him over the course of the 14 months.”
Bontis is also a professor of business at McMaster University, and a CONCACAF council vice-president. He declined to be interviewed.
Bontis stepped down from the volunteer position of Canada Soccer president on Feb. 27, acknowledging change was needed to achieve labour peace with the Canadian men’s and women’s teams. That happened in the wake of a letter from provincial and territorial soccer leaders asking Bontis to resign.
Cochrane will testify on Monday, joined by two members of the board of directors, Paul-Claude Bérubé and Stephanie Geosits. All will appear by videoconference.
As general secretary, Cochrane is the operational leader of Canada Soccer. Bérubé, a Quebec lawyer, is billed as an expert in human rights and governance. Geosits has worked as a journalist and consultant. While earning a master’s degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School, she wrote her policy-analysis exercise on diversifying hockey for the NHL.
On March 9, the committee heard from four members of Canada’s women’s national team, Janine Beckie, Christine Sinclair, Sophie Schmidt and Quinn. In the two-hour hearing, the players took Canada Soccer to task, alleging the organization is not financially transparent, has a culture of secrecy and does not give the women’s team equitable resources to the men’s.
Sinclair, soccer’s career leading international goal scorer, recounted a specific interaction she had with Bontis last year. Sinclair said that after outlining the compensation asked on behalf of her team, Bontis later responded, “What was it Christine was bitching about?” Sinclair said she’d never been “more insulted.”
The women testified that they don’t get enough financial information from Canada Soccer and feel left in the dark while negotiating with the organization. They also want more disclosure about the organization’s contract with Canadian Soccer Business.
“We’re going to do everything we can to to work towards building their trust. We’ve provided both the representatives and their counsel and the players what we viewed as detailed information – audited financial statements, breakdowns of our spending,” Cochrane told The Globe. “But it seems like they want more and so we’re going to try and have those conversations about exactly what it is that they need.”
Both teams have resorted to job action over their dissatisfaction at the labour impasse.
Cochrane said Canada Soccer is committed to getting an agreement done with the players.
The soccer governing body issued a news release in the hours before the women testified on March 9 – including detailed terms of negotiations, which had been discussed confidentially with the players to that point. The women said in testimony said they felt disrespected by how Canada Soccer went about its business that day. Before that release, the organization said it would not negotiate through the media.
“It was a decision to effect a narrative out there, that was becoming more prevalent, and that was false,” Cochrane said. “There was a conversation starting to happen that we weren’t paying our players, or we weren’t aligned with pay equity or finding the opportunities to give all of our national teams a chance at success, and we needed to correct the record.”
Cochrane said he did not know if Bontis may appear before the committee in the future.