Calls for change dominate hearings on Hockey Canada sexual assault cases

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Calls for drastic change within Hockey Canada, Sport Canada, and the way sport bodies deal with sexual assault in Canada were clear during two days of testimony and questioning by the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage this week. The hearings were called due to Hockey Canada’s alleged involvement in sexual assault in 2018.

In an open letter to Canada’s Minister of Sport, Pascale St-Onge, leading up to the hearings, more than two dozen Canadian sport scholars from universities across the nation pointed out that although these incidents of sexual violence may be new to many in the public, they are not new to those in sport.

“The most recent allegations of sexual assaults against women involving Canadian hockey players are deeply disturbing,” the letter read. “However, while these types of incidents are surprising and shocking to the public, academics and journalists have repeatedly documented these problems in hockey and we have been calling for action for decades.”

On the first day of questioning, St-Onge responded, calling into question the independence of the investigators hired by Hockey Canada, the need for more diversity within Hockey Canada, funds used to pay sexual assault victims, transparency, and closed by demanding better from future generations of hockey players representing Canada.

In her statements, St-Onge called the investigation conducted by Danielle Robitaille of Heinen Hutchison LLP in 2018 “not independent enough.” Throughout her testimony, Robitaille claimed client/solicitor privilege on the direction of Hockey Canada numerous times. Specifically, when asked if she reported to Hockey Canada’s board of directors during the investigation, she again claimed client/solicitor privilege.

Hockey Canada has released a plan to combat the
The heads of Hockey Canada sat through seven hours of questioning over two days in front of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage this week amid two separate gang sexual assault cases. (Getty Images)

The participation of members of the 2018 World Junior team was also brought into question. It was clarified during Robitaille’s testimony, contradicting both Scott Smith and Tom Renney of Hockey Canada, that only 10 of 19 players present at the Hockey Canada Gala that preceded the alleged sexual assault participated in the subsequent investigation. At the time, seven players refused to participate until the criminal investigation concluded, with two players refusing involvement altogether. It was clarified during the hearing that moving forward, any player who refused participation in the re-opened investigations would receive a lifetime ban from participating in Hockey Canada activities, and that those bans would be made public.

On the second day of questioning, use of the National Equity Fund to pay sexual assault settlements, as well as leadership in Hockey Canada came under fire. Brian Cairo, Hockey Canada’s Chief Financial Officer, clarified that the fund, which is primarily funded via player registrations, had been utilized in nine settlements totalling $7.6 million, and that an additional $1.2 million from insurance had been paid to other victims. In addition, Heinen Hutchison LLP, led by Danielle Robitaille who was hired as an “independent” investigator into the 2018 allegations, was paid $287,000 for their services.

It was, however, the failures of Hockey Canada to protect not only membership, but the general public, and the perceived inability of leadership, namely Hockey Canada president and CEO Scott Smith, that took center stage in testimony and questioning. MP Peter Julian stated, "I believe Hockey Canada has failed at its task to protect athletes who are victims, public who are victims."

Julian, along with MP’s John Nater and Kevin Waugh, also called clearly for the resignation of Smith, Hockey Canada’s board of directors, and any other staff member who took part in the handling of the 2018, and now 2003 allegations of gang sexual assault Hockey Canada faces.

“I strongly believe there needs to be new leadership within Hockey Canada. Will you step down?" Nater asked Smith. Smith refused to step down, asserting the belief he is capable of fixing the problem.

“I'd like the opportunity to show Canadians what we have done,” said Smith. “I'd like a period of time to be able to do that. And I'm more than prepared to be held accountable to that. And if our board of directors, or as I said earlier, the governance review by a third party suggests that I'm not the right person to do it - my background's not right, my experience is not right, my care and concern for young boys and girls is not right - then I'm prepared to accept that.”

Smith and Hockey Canada released a highly criticized “Action Plan” aiming to address “systemic issues in hockey.” At the same time, as pointed out by MP Michael Coteau during the Committee hearing, Hockey Canada’s open letter to Canadians stated that issues exist in “corners of the game," contradicting their plan. During Wednesday’s testimony, Smith refused to use the word “systemic” when describing issues in hockey.

Also included in Wednesday’s hearing were the presidents of the Canadian Hockey League, and its member leagues, the OHL, WHL, and QMJHL. While MP's focused their questions on how to protect athletes and the general public, CHL president Dan MacKenzie showed interest in protecting the institution of hockey, and to not “damage the reputation of millions of players, coaches…” in Canada. MacKenzie also claimed that hazing “is not the current experience of junior hockey players.” Ontario Hockey League president David Branch then contradicted this statement, and his own message of “an absolute prohibition” on any “right of passage” by saying an OHL coach contact him concerned about a verbal harassment incident related to hazing this season.

Through seven hours of questions this week, in addition to the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage hearing in June, time was often cut short while members of parliament sought answers, clarification, and truth. Future hearings may be announced as the investigations into both the 2018 and 2003 hearings continue. In the meantime, Hockey Canada is scheduled to host the World Junior Hockey Championship this August in Edmonton and Red Deer, Alberta.

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