Hockey Canada has promised to do better in the wake of a sexual assault scandal, but advocates say the historically secretive organization needs to put words into action in a way that has been lacking through the decades.
The country — citizens, fans, the federal government and corporate sponsors alike — also wants to see what comes next.
The sport’s under-fire national federation, its previously shimmering brand tattered like never before, offered an apology and a series of announcements in an open letter to Canadians published Thursday.
Among Hockey Canada’s promises was to revive a dormant third-party investigation into an alleged sexual assault involving members of the country’s 2018 world junior team.
The organization said that unlike before, participation by the players in question will be mandatory: anyone who declines will be banned from all Hockey Canada activities and programs effective immediately. (Hockey Canada previously said it “strongly encouraged” players take part in the initial investigation into the alleged incident that occurred at a 2018 function, but didn’t make it mandatory.)
“I think it’s important to note that this is coming after they’ve been caught,” says Kristi Allain, an associate professor of sociology at St. Thomas University who studies men’s hockey culture.
The letter sends “lots of good signals” and she is “cautiously optimistic” but says she’ll wait and see how things pan out.
Hockey in Canada is peppered with people — mostly white able-bodied men — who have been invested in the sport for their whole lives, she said. The entire structure of hockey has needed outside expertise from people not invested in the sport for decades, but those at the top have ignored such calls, added the professor.
“The culture of secrecy in and of itself cannot be broken by people who are invested in maintaining it,” said Allain.
“We can’t allow the same people who are invested in maintaining hockey as it is to be in charge of completely overhauling what it is. They’re not capable of doing it.”
Sheldon Kennedy, a voice for victims following his own experience being abused by then-coach Graham James in junior hockey, called the letter a “good first step” in an interview with The Canadian Press. “The followup… they should be able to speak with their actions.
“I’m hopeful that they will.”
Hockey Canada CEO Scott Smith, who took on the role July 1, testified on Parliament Hill before the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage last month that “12 or 13” of the 19 players on the roster were interviewed before the original, incomplete investigation concluded in September 2020.
“We know we have not done enough to address the actions of some members of the 2018 national junior team or to end the culture of toxic behavior within our game,” Hockey Canada wrote in its letter Thursday. “For that we unreservedly apologize.”
Smith told parliamentarians that Hockey Canada reported three sexual-assault complaints in recent years, including the alleged incident in London, but wouldn’t discuss the other two in front of the committee last month. He added there have been up to two complaints of sexual misconduct each of the last five or six years.
NDP MP and committee member Peter Julian said Thursday’s letter doesn’t indicate participation will be mandatory for all investigations moving forward.
“The apology is long overdue,” Julian said in a phone interview. “The blowback from the Canadian public, from elected officials, from sponsors has been very clear.”
Hockey Canada quietly settled a lawsuit in May after a woman claimed assault she wased by eight players, including members of the country’s 2018 gold-medal winning junior team, at the event in London, Ont.
None of the allegations have been proven in court.
The woman’s lawyer said in an email to The Canadian Press Thursday that his client, who did not take part in the initial probe or speak with police, “will be participating in the Hockey Canada investigation and will not be commenting to media at this time. ”
Smith (then Hockey Canada’s president) and outgoing CEO Tom Renney were grilled by MPs in Ottawa in that committee meeting. The federal government subsequently paused public funding for the national body, while a number of companies also suspended sponsorships.
Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge, whose file includes the federation, told reporters Thursday that the letter included “steps in the right direction.”
“However, I’m going to wait for actions before we do anything else regarding Hockey Canada,” she said.
St-Onge previously requested that Hockey Canada submit all recommendations made by investigators to Sport Canada (a branch of the Department of Canadian Heritage) along with the organization’s implementation plan “to improve the culture in Hockey Canada and change the culture of silence.”
Kennedy’s Respect Group organization runs programs on abuse and bullying for parents, coaches, trainers and executives across junior and youth programs throughout the country under Hockey Canada’s umbrella.
“There’s a lot of distrust with the way that (2018) case was initially handled,” he said. “They need to build back the trust. And that’s by walking the walk, that’s by doing the work. It’s to be expected that there’s a lot of negativity and a lot of skepticism, but I respect the language.
“It wasn’t there to start. That language wasn’t there. The acknowledgment of wrongdoing wasn’t there, and I think it’s there. And I think that’s the first critical step, you can’t move forward until you know where you came from.”
Hockey Canada said it will now require players, coaches, staff and volunteers associated with its high-performance program to participate in mandatory sexual violence and consent training.
It will also conduct a full third-party governance review and is committing to become a full signatory to the Office of the Integrity Commissioner, a new government agency with the power to independently investigate abuse complaints and levy sanctions.
Hockey Canada added it will also create an “independent and confidential complaint mechanism” to provide victims and survivors with tools and support for coming forward.
“It’s the attitude we were expecting from Hockey Canada, but four years too late,” Bloc Québécois MP Sebastien Lemire said in statement issued in French.
St-Onge said last month federal money would only be restored once officials produced the third-party report and became a signatory to the Office of the Integrity Commissioner.
Hockey Canada did not commit to releasing either the incomplete or full report to the government Thursday.
“We have heard from Canadians, players, their families, fans, sponsors and those impacted by what occurred in 2018,” the organization wrote.
“We know you are angry and disappointed in Hockey Canada — rightfully so.”
The federation said once its investigation is completed, it will be referred to “an independent adjudicative panel of current and former judges who will determine the appropriate consequences, which may include a lifetime ban from Hockey Canada activity, on and off the ice.”
The woman who made the assault allegation was seeking $3.55 million in damages from Hockey Canada, the Canadian Hockey League (the umbrella body representing the country’s top junior hockey leagues) and the unnamed players.
Hockey Canada has said it learned of the incident the day after it was alleged to have occurred, started to investigate and notified London police, which closed its investigation in February 2019. The federation added that the woman decided not to identify the players.
Kennedy, however, said it’s crucial their identities are known — at the very least by investigators — not just so there are repercussions, but also for training and education.
“If we don’t, we have no way to potentially change behaviour,” he said. “We know when it’s unchecked, and people get away with these types of events and incidents, they are repeated a lot of the times.”
“There needs to be a lot of work done with any of the individuals involved to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Scotiabank, the first company to pause support for Hockey Canada, said in a statement that Thursday’s letter was “a positive step in a longer journey” for the federation.
The MPs’ standing committee is set to meet again on July 26 and 27 to hear from more witnesses. It has also requested a redacted copy of the nondisclosure agreement related to the settlement, along with a long list of Hockey Canada communications.
Julian said he hopes the testimony later this month is more transparent, accountable and focused on a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to sexual violence.
“The difference between the Hockey Canada executives and where Canadians are at was such a wide gulf,” Julian said of the June meeting. “It was unbelievable.
“Hockey Canada is now starting to understand how far short they fell.”
The NHL is also conducting an investigation because some of the 19 players are now in the league, but stopped short of making mandatory participation. Via email, the NHL Players’ Association declined to comment when asked what direction the union is giving its members.
St-Onge said she only learned of the incident and settlement on a call with Renney, days before the initial report from TSN that broke the story. Hockey Canada said it informed Sport Canada of the situation in June 2018.
“Changes to policies and procedures can occur with the stroke of a pen,” Hockey Canada wrote Thursday. “Those changes are meaningless, however, without an equal commitment to addressing the toxic behavior that exists in many corners.
“We know this change will not occur overnight, but we are committed to learning, and working with our partners to do better.”
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