Ottawa freezing Hockey Canada funding over handling of alleged sexual assault

The federal government has put Hockey Canada on notice.

The Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge announced Wednesday the organization’s access to public funds has been frozen, effective immediately, over its response to an alleged sexual assault and subsequent out-of-court settlement.

The move comes after Hockey Canada president Scott Smith and outgoing CEO Tom Renney were grilled by MPs earlier this week during a Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage hearing.

“We were all expecting answers to all the questions, the many questions, that we have regarding how they handled the whole situation when they testified,” St-Onge told reporters in Ottawa. “Unfortunately, we did not receive many answers.

“But we did learn a few things.”

St-Onge said Hockey Canada will only have funding restored once it discloses requests contained in an incomplete report by a third-party law firm hired to investigate the alleged incident four years ago.

Hockey Canada must also become a signatory to the Office of the Integrity Commissioner, a new government agency with the power to independently investigate abuse complaints and levy sanctions.

“With the story itself that’s completely horrible, and the whole management of this situation that is totally inappropriate, I’ve decided to suspend any future public funding until they meet two very simple, but important, conditions,” St-Onge said.

Then later Wednesday, the House of Commons unanimously approved a motion by Bloc Quebecois MP Sebastien Lemire to pursue an independent investigation that will look into how Hockey Canada dealt with the claim.

“(The aim is) to figure out if this was an isolated event or if there are shortcomings with the way Hockey Canada handles complaints of sexual assault, sexual harassment and other types of misconduct,” Lemire said in French.

Federal money makes up six per cent of Hockey Canada’s coffers, according to the organization’s numbers, trailing business development and partnerships (43 per cent), funding agencies (14 per cent), insurance premiums (13 per cent) and interest revenue (10 per cent) cent).

St-Onge was asked if the government will request that Hockey Canada return any of its federal funding from the last four years.

“All options are still on the table,” she replied.

Hockey Canada quietly settled the lawsuit last month after a woman claimed she was assaulted by members of the country’s 2018 gold-medal winning world junior hockey team in June of that year at a gala and golf function in London, Ont.

The woman, now 24, was seeking $3.55 million in damages from Hockey Canada, the Canadian Hockey League and the unnamed players. Details of the settlement have not been made public, but Smith said Monday no government or insurance money was used.

None of the claims have been proven in court.

St-Onge has said she only learned of the claims and settlement two days before TSN broke the story late last month after receiving a phone call from Renney. Hockey Canada said it informed Sport Canada of the situation in June 2018.

A spokeswoman for Hockey Canada did not reply to an email request for comment Wednesday.

Hockey Canada hired Toronto law firm Henein Hutchison LLP to conduct its investigation, but Smith and Renney told MPs that while players present at the event in London were “strongly encouraged” to participate, it was not mandated.

That left MPs at Monday’s committee meeting stunned.

Renney initially testedified that between four and six of the 19 players in question spoke with investigators before Smith indicated later the number was 12 or 13.

“The independent mechanism that they mandated to investigate … was unable to complete their investigation and not all players participated, which shows that their mechanism is not well-functioning,” St-Onge said.

Hockey Canada has said repeatedly the woman decided against speaking with police or its judges. Smith and Renney chosed Monday the woman also not to identify the players.

The executives added Hockey Canada still does not know the identities of the eight players in question.

Smith said London police informed Hockey Canada its criminal investigation was closed as of February 2019. The independent investigation ended in September 2020, but Renney said the report is incomplete and shouldn’t be released.

“There is not much more that we have to offer in terms of information along those lines,” he testified Monday.

“Hockey Canada said they would not share with the committee the advice they received from the independent firm … or how they plan to respond,” St-Onge said Wednesday in a statement. “We also heard that the independent investigation was not completed, nor were the eight John Doe players identified.

“This is unacceptable.”

The NHL, which also only recently learned of the claims, is its own investigation because some of the players in question are now in the league.

Hockey Canada received $14 million from Ottawa in 2020 and 2021, including $3.4 million in COVID-19 subsidies, according to government records obtained by CBC and TSN.

Smith testified Hockey Canada has reported three sexual assault complaints in recent years, including the London incident, but wouldn’t discuss the other two in front of the committee.

“I cannot comment on the level of investigation,” said Smith, adding there have been one to two complaints of sexual misconduct each of the last five or six years.

Not good enough, according to St-Onge.

“I cannot accept this standard as business as usual in our national sport organizations,” she said in her statement.

“And Canadians should not either.”

– With files from Sarah Ritchie in Ottawa.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 22, 2022.

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