MPs request judicial inquiry, Conservatives call for ouster of Hockey Canada executives, board

By Rick Westhead

Members of Parliament from four Canadian political parties are calling for the government to convene a judicial inquiry to explore the issue of abuse in sports and provide survivors with a forum to share their stories.

Conservative MP John Nater said his party is also calling for the immediate removal of Hockey Canada’s board of directors and senior leadership team.

“Those who oversaw the cover-up of alleged sexual assaults cannot be trusted to be the ones to implement the necessary structural changes at Hockey Canada,” Nater wrote in a text message to TSN on Friday. “The Liberal government must look at all options to ensure that there is appropriate leadership at Hockey Canada, whether through a third-party independent trusteeship, guardianship, or other measures.”

Nater was joined in calling for an inquiry by Liberal MP Lisa Hepfner, NDP MP Peter Julian and Bloc Quebecois MP Sebastien Lemire. The four MPs are members of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, which has been examining Hockey Canada’s response to sexual abuse allegations. The MPs said the committee should also continue with its study of Canada’s richest and most powerful national sports organization (NSO) with more hearings and witnesses in September.

“The culture we’ve seen within both Hockey Canada and Sport Canada is deep-rooted,” Nater wrote. “I would hope that an in-depth inquiry would be able to tackle some of these issues and provide long-term recommendations. Of course, in the short term, we still need to see immediate change at both organizations.”

A Hockey Canada spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A judicial inquiry, which University of Ottawa law professor and constitutional law expert Benoit Pelletier said is the modern equivalent of royal commission, is typically headed by a judge and can last several years. Inquiries have the ability to subpoena witnesses and documents and can hear witness testimony in public or in camera.

“We know it’s not just hockey and there are problems in many sports across the board with violence and sexualized violence against both sexes,” Hepfner said in an interview with TSN on Thursday. “We have shown through our Parliamentary committee that shining the light on the problem can effect change and force higher-ups to be more accountable and have a reckoning and understand how widespread this problem is.”

Lemire said it’s important that survivors of abuse in sports other than hockey also have an ability to pursue accountability by scrutinizing the organizations that govern lower-profile sports in Canada.

“We need to give [survivors] the opportunity to speak,” Lemire said in an interview on Thursday.

Subject In News Last Few Months

The subject of abuse in sports has become prominent over the past two-plus months since TSN reported in May that Hockey Canada had settled a $3.55-million lawsuit over allegations that a woman was sexually assaulted by eight Canadian Hockey League players after a 2018 Hockey Canada gala event in London, Ont. The allegations were never tested in court.

A parliamentary committee is continuing to investigate Hockey Canada. Sport Canada has frozen funding for the organization and major sponsors have paused their partnerships with Hockey Canada.

Both Hockey Canada and the London police have reopened investigations into the assault allegations in London and the National Hockey League is also investigating. Halifax police are investigating an alleged sexual assault involving members of Canada’s 2003 World Juniors team.

Sports Organizations In Crisis

“We have heard from enough Canadians across the country to know that many of our national sports organizations are in crisis,” said Julian. “It’s not just Hockey Canada. There are a number of other organizations where we’re seeing issues of sexual violence and sexual abuse not being dealt with effectively. A judicial inquiry makes a great deal of sense because it can actually give a forum for victims to tell their story and relate their experiences to the Canadian public.”

If the government decides to establish an inquiry, it would be the first to delve into the subject of sports since Ontario judge Charles Dubin presided over eight months of testimony from more than 100 witnesses in 1989 as he investigated the use of banned performance-enhancing drugs in international sports. The Dubin Inquiry was formed after Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson lost his gold medal following a failed drug test at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul.

Dubin was named the head of a commission to study drug use in sport in October 1988. His report was submitted to the federal government in June 1990.

During testimony this week in Ottawa, the committee heard that Sport Canada was advised in June 2018 by Hockey Canada about an alleged sexual assault in London, Ont., involving players from Canada’s world junior hockey team. Sport Canada officials testified that after being informed of the alleged incident, they never shared any details with the office of Canada’s sport minister, never followed up with Hockey Canada to determine what had happened with its investigation of the alleged assault and continued providing Hockey Canada with millions of dollars’ worth of funding.

“The government also has an obligation to provide clear, direct and specific answers about how Sport Canada ignored these allegations, having known about them since 2018,” Nater wrote.

Beginning in 2018, Canadian NSOs have been required as a condition of receiving government funding to advise Sport Canada about the number of cases of alleged abuse reported each year. Several athletes have alleged in interviews with TSN that at least two NSOs have misreported this information.

Julian said it was apparent that Sport Canada was operating an “honour system” without verifying the information provided by the NSOs was accurate.

A spokesperson for Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge said the government is investigating the allegation that some NSOs have not been transparent about the number of abuse allegations they have received.

For the moment, St-Onge has refused requests from members of parliament and advocacy groups for abuse survivors to request cabinet form an inquiry.

Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner Formed

Instead, the minister has attempted to focus public attention on a new federal agency called the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner, which is mandated with receiving abuse complaints and investigating them independent of NSOs.

Since the office opened formally in April, NSOs for weightlifting and volleyball have become signatories. Hockey Canada has said it will become a signatory to the office.

“What athletes in Canada need is action and the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner is now in place,” St-Onge said in a statement provided to TSN on Thursday. “I am working to make it mandatory for all NSOs. I also announced last month that all federal funding agreements will be reviewed. This will require NSOs to be more accountable and transparent.

“Athletes have told me that they need an independent mechanism that they can turn to in situations of abuse, maltreatment, and discrimination. That is why we have and are taking action to put this in place.”

More than 500 current and former gymnasts have requested the government commission an independent investigation to examine the allegedly toxic culture within the sport and on Friday, the advocacy groups Global Athlete and Gymnasts for Change Canada in a joint statement called for a judicial inquiry.

“It is time to rethink sport in Canada,” Global Athlete director general Rob Koehler wrote. “It is time to correct the power imbalance between sporting organizations and athletes that has fostered years of abuse.”

Calls For More Testimony

In addition to a judicial inquiry, MPs said they want to pursue their study and call more witnesses to testify as soon as September about Hockey Canada.

Lemire said that he would like to call former Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson to testify about how the organization has historically managed sexual assault allegations. Lemire also said he wants to hear testimony from Hockey Canada’s past and current board members, insurance company AIG, which provides Hockey Canada with coverage for abuse claims, and Bob Martin, a former Ontario Provincial Police officer who is head of security for both Hockey Canada and the London Knights.

Julian said the committee also should hear testimony from former sport ministers Kirsty Duncan and Steven Guilbeault about the relationship between Sport Canada and the minister’s office. Duncan was the minister of sport from January 2018 to November 2019, when Guilbeault succeeded her. Julian said he also wants St-Onge to testify, for a third time, before the committee.

After hearing Hockey Canada officials say on Wednesday that the organization has paid $8.9 million since 1989 to settle 21 cases of alleged sexual assault, Liberal MP Anthony Housefather said in an interview on Thursday that he wants the committee to expand its study to consider how other NSOs have confronted abuse issues.

“Our committee needs to delve into a broader question about safe sport in all of our sports federations,” Housefather said. “Hockey Canada may be the tip of the iceberg, or it may be an anomaly. We need to know which is true.”