One of the plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against the Calgary Stampede says he agrees with a member of Parliament who wants the federal government to temporarily withdraw funding for the organization.
A partial settlement was reached this week in the lawsuit that alleges the Stampede allowed a performance school staffer to sexually abuse boys.
The settlement involves an admission of negligence and breach of duty, but it must still be approved by a judge. The Stampede would pay damages that are to be worked out later this summer.
Philip Heerema is serving a 10-year sentence for luring boys into sexual relationships when he worked for the Stampede’s Young Canadians School of Performing Arts.
Heerema admitted to using his position with the group, which performs each year in the Calgary Stampede Grandstand Show, to lure and groom six boys into sexual relationships. The school is operated by the Calgary Stampede Foundation.
The lawsuit’s three dozen plaintiffs are all men who were students, employees, contractors or volunteers with the performance school.
“I don’t think anyone’s trying to get the Calgary Stampede cancelled,” one of the plaintiffs said in an interview Friday.
“That is not our goal and that is not what needs to be done for justice to be served. But it’s very clear that the Calgary Stampede still hasn’t fully faced what happened in the past.”
He said he agrees with Liberal MP George Chahal, who represents Calgary Skyview, who said in a social media post Thursday night that the Stampede has lost people’s trust and the federal government should halt all funding it provides.
“Not a single taxpayer dollar should support an organization that has shown such blatant disregard for the well-being of our youth,” Chahal wrote. “Federal funding should only be reconsidered when the victims themselves feel that genuine accountability and reconciliation have occurred.”
In 2022, the federal government provided a one-time contribution of $10 million to the Stampede from its Major Festivals and Events Support Initiative, $8.9 million of which was received that year and the balance expected in 2023.
A statement from the office of Dan Vandal, the federal minister of Northern Affairs, Prairies Economic Development Canada and Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, said the final part of that $10 million went to the Stampede on May 8, as part of an ask to help the Stampede return to a full-scale event in 2022.
“The Calgary Stampede did not seek or receive PrairiesCan funding specifically for the 2023 Stampede,” Kyle Allan, Vandal’s press secretary, said. “This is a very sensitive matter that demands our attention and discretion as we examine a path forward from this tragic development.”
Allan called the Stampede’s admission of liability “deeply upsetting” and called on the organization to “do everything in its power to support the victims and show that concrete steps are taken to ensure nothing like these horrific crimes ever happens again.”
According to the organization’s 2022 financial statement, the Stampede has benefited from federal pandemic-related business measures like the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy.
The Government of Canada also provided funding for the BMO Centre expansion.
The Stampede’s 2023 budget estimation prepared last year and posted online shows it was not counting on federal funding this year.
Chahal said there’s a loss of trust that needs to be rebuilt between the Stampede and the community. He’d like to see those who were in positions of power while Heerema was with Young Canadians be held to account, too.
“The folks who covered this up – these crimes against children in our community – those people should no longer be involved in that organization. They should be let go,” Chahal told Global News. “And then anybody else who tried to cover this up and make sure that this didn’t get out in the public, I mean, should be relieved of their duties and should resign their positions.”
In a statement issued Friday, Stampede CEO Joel Cowley said the settlement agreement was the organization taking responsibility and an acknowledgement they should have known “much sooner.”
“For this, we are truly sorry,” he said.
Cowley said the Stampede “remains committed” to guard against anything like what happened in 2014 from happening again, and has taken steps to increase safety for youth in the school of performing arts.
He said with the lawsuit still before the courts, the settlement is “expected to reflect agreement with the victims and we hope that outcome will help the victims and their families begin to heal.”
Another plaintiff in the case told Global News the goal of the settlement is to resolve damages with the Stampede and “take one step further in trying to obtain closure for those who have been affected.
“Many individuals in the class (action) have been carrying the weight of their abuse for decades and do not have the resources to access ongoing support. My hope is that the Stampede will recognize the urgency of this situation and take action to help us move on after all these years.”
Province won’t stop funding Stampede: Smith
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith called what happened to the youth in the Young Canadians was a “tragedy” and “well known.”
Smith said she has asked the Stampede and Young Canadians “to tell us what they have done over the years to make sure that children are not exploited or victimized that way.”
But she also said the province would continue to support what she called “the premier festival in Alberta.”
According to the Stampede’s 2022 financial report, the annual event receives more than $6 million from provincial coffers in an operating grant.
Smith said she wants to know specifics about protocols and protections Young Canadians has in place for youth.
“(Young Canadians) needs to answer these questions because Young Canadians is the one that had the offender in question,” the premier said. “Young Canadians was the one who allowed him to operate as he did until finally it was reported on in 2014. And Young Canadians is at the front line of making sure that all adults who are working with children are doing so in a way that is safe.”
Opposition Leader Rachel Notley said the number of victims and length of time the situation continued was “deeply troubling.”
“A full and clear accountability for the Stampede’s role in this abuse and resulting trauma is needed.”