Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says it’s “hard for anyone” in the country to have trust in Hockey Canada as the organization faces scrutiny for its handling of alleged sexual assault cases and the overall culture within the sport.
Speaking on Bowen Island, B.C., on Tuesday, Trudeau was reacting to revelations from the day before that Hockey Canada has maintained a fund to pay for uninsured liabilities, including sexual abuse claims.
“I think it’s hard for anyone in Canada to have faith or trust in anyone at Hockey Canada,” the prime minister said, calling news of the reserve fund “unacceptable.”
“A few years ago, I had my son in hockey. And when I think about the culture that is apparently permeating the highest orders of that organization, I can understand why so many Canadians who take such pride in our national winter sport are absolutely disgusted by what’s going on.”
The sport’s national body has been under intense scrutiny since news of an alleged sexual assault of a woman following a 2018 gala in London, Ont., involving eight unidentified players — including members of that year’s world junior team — and subsequent settlement broke in May.
None of the allegations have been proven in court.
Hockey Canada last week said it was reopening an independent investigation into the alleged incident, after the organization’s president and COO Scott Smith and outgoing CEO Tom Renney told the parliamentary committee on Canadian heritage last month that players from the team were encouraged — but not required — to cooperate with investigators.
Smith testified “12 or 13” of the 19 players at the gala were interviewed before the original and incomplete investigation concluded in September 2020. That came after an earlier statement from Renney that only four to six players cooperated.
Following that testimony, Global News reached out to the agents for all players on the 2018 Hockey Canada roster asking whether each player had participated in the independent probe, and whether they were involved in the alleged sexual assault.
Of the 22 players on the publicly-available roster, eight responded to Global News’ requests or have issued public statements to deny they were involved in the alleged incident. A lawyer for six other players and the agent for a seventh denied wrongdoing while also alleging naming the players in the context of the story would be defamatory.
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Six more players did not respond to Global News’ request for comment, while another declined to comment through his agent.
Hockey Canada said Thursday that it will be mandatory for all players to participate in the reopened investigation, adding anyone who declines will be banned from all of the federation’s activities and programs effective immediately.
A lawyer for the woman who made the assault allegation told Global News in an email last week 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.”
The federal government has frozen funding to the organization pending what Trudeau on Tuesday said were “significant reforms and transparency and accountability.” A number of high-profile sponsors, including Tim Hortons, Esso and Canadian Tire, have also suspended their support.
“Certainly, as a government, we will continue to be unequivocal in our condemnation of what we’re learning, and mostly in our demands that things change significantly,” Trudeau told reporters.
The detail of Hockey Canada’s reserve fund for sexual abuse claims and other “uninsured liabilities” was included in a July 2021 affidavit sworn by Glen McCurdie, who was then Hockey Canada’s vice-president of insurance and risk management, as part of a lawsuit launched by an injured player in Ontario.
In her civil suit, which was settled in May, the alleged victim was seeking $3.5 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 testified to parliamentarians last month Hockey Canada liquidated a portion of its investments to pay for the settlement, adding that no public money was used.
Minister of Sport Pascal St-Onge ordered an audit to make sure that’s indeed the case.
The NHL is also conducting an investigation because some of the players are in the league, but isn’t making participation mandatory.
The Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage is set to meet Tuesday and Wednesday next week to hear from a long list of witnesses, including McCurdie.
—With files from Global News’ Amanda Connolly and the Canadian Press