From the time Geoff Snider first scooped up a lacrosse ball at the age of 11, he has been playing Canada’s national summer sport.
“The sport of lacrosse is responsible for my education, it’s responsible for my peer group, it’s responsible for my career, my livelihood, my identity. The sport of lacrosse is who I am,” Snider said.
Though Snider retired from professional lacrosse in 2016 after nine seasons with the Calgary Roughnecks and Philadelphia Wings, he was selected by the Canadian Lacrosse Association (CLA) for the fourth time to represent Canada at the world championships in Israel this July.
“I’m in debt to the sport of lacrosse and to Team Canada. My first experience in 2006, being fresh out of college and having the opportunity to wear the Maple Leaf, it was a dream come true,” he said. “It’s been absolutely influential in my direction in my life, if not the most influential portion of my lacrosse career.”
But a longstanding dispute between national players and the lacrosse association has reached a boiling point and is threatening Canada’s chance of being represented at the worlds. It would be the first time since 1967.
“It would be catastrophic for the sport,” Snider said.
“We’re into talks with the CLA for the first time and I’m optimistic that we’re going to get there. That being said, I’m cautiously optimistic.”
CLA loses its charitable status
Unlike hockey, soccer or basketball, athletes playing for Canada’s lacrosse team have to pay thousands of dollars to represent their country at international events. Players often rely on sponsorships or donations to cover the expenses, but that process has been complicated since the Canada Revenue Agency stripped the CLA of its Registered Canadian Amateur Athletic Association (RCAAA) status for participating in a multi-million dollar tax shelter program in 2010.
Without its RCAAA status, the CLA can no longer issue tax receipts.
“When players have to go out and get sponsorships or we need to fundraise for the program, not being able to issue a charitable receipt makes it extra challenging,” said Dean French, a former chairman with the men’s lacrosse team.
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“It’s a little embarrassing, but we had our heritage cup game, Team Canada versus Team USA in Hamilton,” French said. “Great crowds, great experience … and would’ve been great to run a 50-50 draw for the national team, but without the charitable status, we couldn’t even do that.”
The CRA revoked the lacrosse association’s status because it issued “more than $60.7 million in donation receipts for abusive transactions arising from its role as a participant in tax shelter arrangements that, in the opinion of the Minister, do not qualify as gifts.”
The CLA was one of six sports groups that participated in a tax shelter initially created by Parklane Financial Group. Little League Canada (baseball) and Football Canada also lost their charitable status.
The tax shelter involved money being sent offshore through a trust in Bermuda, which allowed the CLA to issue tax receipts nearly four times the value of the initial donation, according to CRA documents. Of the more than $60 million that flowed through the offshore tax shelter, Canadian lacrosse kept about $608,447 or one per cent, according to the CRA.
Calls for resignations
Former managers with the men’s lacrosse team French, Gait, Dave Huntley and John Mouradian penned a letter in late January making several demands including “the immediate removal of CLA directors deemed ineligible by the CRA, to restore the CLA’s charitable status.”
French told Global News that according to the federal government, the CLA’s charitable status could be reinstated if the board members who were around during the tax shelter fiasco step down, including president Joey Harris and director at large Sohen Gill.
“If you were on the board when the charitable status was lost, you really have to get off that board, not only that, you shouldn’t be on any other charitable boards at all or you risk them losing their status,” French said. “In my opinion, that was never addressed during the seven years that we’ve been waiting for our players to get the charitable status back.”
Exactly how much the CLA has in its operating budget is unclear as its financial statements are not made publicly available like those of Hockey Canada or Basketball Canada.
Sport Canada provided lacrosse $445,000 in 2017-2018, with another $176,520 in revenues coming from the Canadian Lacrosse Foundation, of which Joey Harris is also a board member. A Vancouver non-profit which tracks charitable spending lists assets for the CLF at just over $3.2 million. The CLA gives $100,000 to senior teams and $75,000 for U19 teams, according to French.
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Joey Harris declined repeated requests from Global News for an interview. CLA executive director Jane Clapham said the association’s annual budget is approximately $1.4 million – how that money is distributed between teams fluctuates from year-to-year.
However, emails from Harris and other CLA board members obtained by Global News appeared to show him acknowledging the need to step down.
“When we look at how much we received from the parkland and equigenigsis (sic) programs it’s in the millions versus the 30- 50k we had been receiving via the regular donations,” he added.
Mouradian responded in an email questioning why players are still being asked to pay.
“’We have millions’ – why are players still paying to play and we have terrible insurance?” he wrote.
Harris has maintained the CLA did it’s due diligence, consulting legal and tax experts to determine the legitimacy of the gifting program and that the organization had no reason to believe there was anything wrong and ended its participation when concerns were raised.
“At the time our RCAAA status was revoked, it was certainly detrimental to our image as the national governing body for the sport, however it had little effect on our financial position,” the CLA said in a statement last November. “The return on our investment from the investment programs have far exceeded any charitable contributions we had previously experienced and continue to be an important part of our organization’s funding structure, which supports all aspects of our mandate.”
However, 2010 CRA documents state that the CLA relied on legal opinions commissioned by promoters of the tax shelter program.
Snider said he has never paid less than $2,000 and has heard of players paying up to $9,000 for a tournament. Costs for next year’s men’s world field championships in Israel are expected to be $4,000.
Both French and Mouradian told Global News that CLA board members and staff who have attended championships in the past have had all their expenses paid.
“It’s terrible,” Mouradian said. “You have to have better management and board if [the $445,000] is all you’re getting. There is something wrong in our humble estimation.”
Clapham would not comment on the emails or whether board members travel costs were covered.
“The Canadian Lacrosse Association hopes to continue to resolve with our national athletes,” she said. “It is our intention to send a team to Israel this summer.”
This week, the newly formed National Lacrosse Teams Players’ Association (NLTPA) was scheduled for a series of talks with board members of the CLA where they outline a four-year agreement to demand better player representation, better insurance, the removal of participation costs, and for the association to “aggressively” pursue the restoration of its tax status.
“Any CLA Director whose continued presence on the Board directly or indirectly impedes restoration of tax exempt status shall immediately resign or, alternatively, be dismissed,” read a proposal from the NLTPA obtained by Global News.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Sport Canada said it can’t get involved in any matters regarding the governing body.
“The Departments of Canadian Heritage and Sport Canada cannot intervene, pressure, or influence the internal administrative procedures and board appointments of national sport organizations,” Annabelle Archmbault said in an email statement.
Talks between Canadian Lacrosse and player union cancelled
Late Sunday evening, the lacrosse association abruptly cancelled scheduled talks for this week claiming that no “agenda” from the players’ side had been provided two business days prior, Clapham said.
“It was not in the best interest of either parties to attend without both parties being prepared,” Clapham told Global News, adding that a new meeting has been tentatively scheduled for Friday.
NLTPA counsel Richard Furlong said this is “not true” and the CLA has known about the players’ grievances for years.
“This was a classic bait and switch and it’s unfortunate that it happened,” Furlong said, adding that individual contracts for players attending the world championships have still not been signed.
“There is no question right now that Canadian lacrosse is in trouble at all levels,” he said. “It’s difficult to get kids involved when you don’t have high-profile national teams.”
Furlong said players have three main demands: reinstatement of its charity status, “bread and butter” financial issues including removing costs and better insurance, and improved representation have been at the top of players’ agenda.
“There should have been some attention paid to this long before 2018,” he said. “We are demanding that we sit down with the CLA and go through these issues in good faith, but they refuse to do it essentially.”
Garry Gait, lacrosse hall of famer who helped Canada win the world title in 2006, said the men’s team is “absolutely” in jeopardy of missing the worlds in Israel. It could be damaging to the sport’s reputation, which is making a push to be recognized as an Olympic sport, he said.
“If these issues can’t be addressed or resolved I don’t see how they would be willing to move forward,” said Gait who is now head coach of the women’s lacrosse team at Syracuse University. “We are making the right steps towards an Olympic bid and being in the Olympics. This could really devastate that.”
Players aren’t looking to get paid to play, Snider said, they are just looking to be treated more equally and safely in competition.
But with an April 15 deadline for players to sign contracts for the world championships fast approaching, Team Canada could miss its chance to defend their title in Israel.