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Hockey Canada complaint process left woman feeling ‘not safe,’ urging change

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Hockey Canada complaint process left woman feeling ‘not safe,’ urging change
WATCH: Last year, Hockey Canada signed on with the office of the sport integrity commissioner as part of their conditions to regain their federal funding. David Baxter reports – Sep 8, 2023

As Hockey Canada prepares to hold a summit aimed at tackling cultural problems like misogyny and gender violence, a woman who tried to bring a complaint through the organization’s Independent Third Party complaint process says she wishes she never took part and wants to see changes.

That comes after she said she was asked to take part in an adjudication session with a man she had accused of sexual assault amid an active police investigation.

“I would absolutely not encourage anyone to go through this process, not as it currently stands. It’s not safe,” she said in an interview with Global News.

Global News is not naming the woman because she fears legal recourse for speaking with media about her experiences.

Her complaint stems from a sexual assault allegation dating back almost a decade. The woman said she discovered her husband worked in the same hockey league as the man she alleges sexually assaulted her, and lodged an initial complaint in 2021 with their provincial hockey authority.

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The complainant and her husband wanted to bar her attacker from working games where her husband was also working.

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In late 2022, Hockey Canada assumed authority over the complaint and appointed the Independent Third Party, known as Sport Complaints, to run the investigation and complaint process.

“Sports Complaints was established as Hockey Canada’s Independent Third Party in July 2022 after a consultation process to identify an ITP that was committed to ensuring that all maltreatment complaints would be handled using trauma-informed processes that provide fairness, equity and respect to all parties involved,” Hockey Canada told Global News when asked about the body’s role.

Hockey Canada first announced this ITP on Oct. 27, 2022, to cover all maltreatment complaints that do not take place at the national level, after signing on with the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner (OSIC).

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Signing on with OSIC was a condition of Hockey Canada getting its federal funding restored after that was frozen in response to the organization’s handling of sexual assault allegations against members of the 2018 World Juniors team, details of which emerged in the media last year.

On Dec. 2, 2022, the woman heard from Sport Complaints that it was taking on her case.

“For the first time, we felt that there was some hope that there’s a process that we can use that will be helpful to us,” she said.

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Once the initial report was completed by the Sport Complaints’ investigator, the complainant filed a police report and her local police began to investigate the allegation of sexual assault.

But in late May 2023, the complainant asked to have the process through Sport Complaints suspended until the police investigation concluded. This comes after she said she was asked to take part in an adjudication session as part of the Sport Investigation with the man she had accused of sexual assault.

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She told Global News she worried that going to adjudication with the man could compromise the police investigation. This request was denied by an adjudicator, and not long after the woman formally withdrew the complaint.

“Why would I go through this process and risk evidence, contamination, risk, you know, tainting the investigation with police?” she said.

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In an emailed response to Global News when asked about the woman’s experience, Sports Complaints said it works closely with agencies like police and child protective service agencies when there are concurrent processes to ensure investigations are not compromised.

“In some instances, the police request that we pause our process, which we do. In other cases, the police have no concerns with each process running simultaneously and thus we proceed,” Sport Complaints wrote.

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But the woman said that she was worried about being retraumatized in going through an adjudication session with her alleged attacker, and feels this concern was brushed off by the adjudicator.

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“In my view, it was kind of this [view of], ‘Well, you’ve already put yourself through trauma. What’s a bit more, you know, how is that going to hurt?’” she said.

“Given that it was supposed to be a trauma-informed process. I questioned that and said, ‘This is supposed to be trauma-informed. What are you doing? Why? Why would we do that? Why would that be OK?’”

Trauma-informed processes are those that take special care to avoid re-traumatizing victims and survivors. This often involves steps to understand, anticipate, and respond to expectations, special needs and other considerations that are often present in survivors of trauma.

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Joanna Birenbaum, a lawyer who specializes in sexual violence matters, said that running parallel proceedings, such as the ones at play in this case, can be tricky, and that decisions around the suspension of quasi-judicial proceedings have to be taken on a case-by-case basis.

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“In general, a parallel proceeding doesn’t necessarily ‘taint’ a criminal investigation. It depends on the stage of each investigation,” Birenbaum said in an emailed response.

“But certainly, an administrative hearing that proceeds a criminal trial poses risks to both the complainant and respondent in terms of any evidence that they give in one proceeding potentially being used against them in the next.”

She said that it is more common for bodies like this to suspend their process if the respondent has been charged, at the time in this case the matter was still under investigation, but it’s not unheard of for a regulator to go ahead with their process after charges have been laid.

The man accused of sexual assault in this case has not been charged.

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Birenbaum said a complainant going through simultaneous administrative and criminal investigation processes brings up a dual problem.

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“This is both potentially re-traumatizing as well as making it more likely that there will be inconsistencies in the statements. It would be inhuman to expect a person to give evidence of trauma in exactly the same way on multiple occasions,” Birenbaum said.

In its emailed response to questions about the matter, Sport Complaints said that all aspects of its complaint process are governed by its policies.

“The application of the policies by the ITP, investigators, adjudicators and mediators is trauma informed and grounded in supporting the parties through what can be an emotional and difficult situation for the parties involved in a procedurally fair manner,” Sports Complaints said in its emailed statement.

Sports Complaints did not address this specific case in its response. It is common practice with regulatory bodies such as this to not discuss specific cases publicly.

Now that the complaint has been withdrawn, the woman said she is left with regret.

“The only thing that we wanted at the very start of this was for my husband to be able to go to work and not have a concern that he would face the person that allegedly raped his wife,” she said.

“I wish I hadn’t gone through this process. I wish I hadn’t reported it because I can choose not to go to a hockey game, but my husband can’t choose not to go to work.”

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After formally withdrawing the complaint, she said that the last contact she had with Sport Complaints was an acknowledgement of receipt, and a message that the matter cannot be reopened.

Sports abuse needs national inquiry, advocates urge

Many athletes-turned-advocates, such as Kim Shore with Gymnasts 4 Change, have testified at the House of Commons’ Canadian Heritage committee, which gives witnesses protection from legal recourse under parliamentary privilege, and are calling for a national inquiry into abuse in sport.

“The feedback we have had is that the processes are dehumanizing, so lengthy that they are exhausting, that they are incredibly difficult to navigate, and it leads to complainants withdrawing their complaints because it no longer feels worth it to them,” Shore said in an interview with Global News.

“They can’t see justice ahead. They can’t see that their efforts will result in any meaningful change that might protect other people, other children. And so for their own sanity, they are forced to give up the process.”

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The woman in this case said she has a legal background and still had a great deal of difficulty navigating the process. Like Shore, she also wants to see a broader inquiry in Canada’s sport system in order to help protect people from abuse at all levels.

“It’s a human rights issue. It’s a child welfare issue. And the fact that we keep ignoring it and not pushing for an inquiry in order to protect them is a complete disservice to every single child in this country,” she said.

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She said she also sent the withdrawal letter to the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner (OSIC), the body that oversees complaints like this at the national level.

She said OSIC invited her to take part in an environmental assessment of Hockey Canada that it is conducting. The invitation notes that she will be contacted again by OSIC in the future at a relevant time.

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Sport Integrity Commissioner Sarah-Eve Pelletier said she cannot talk about specific cases, especially those being handled by an ITP, but stressed the efforts to ensure these safe-sport mechanisms maintain independence from sport organizations.

“There are steps taken and making sure that the systems are independent, are robust and really trauma-informed as well,” Pelletier told Global News.

“Because those who come forward and go through a process of this sort have experienced harm or have allegedly experienced harm. So, there is there is a lot of care required.”

Who is the Sport Complaints body?

Throughout the process, the complainant said she interacted with two people who worked for Sport Complaints — both case managers. The adjudicator was a third party.

She said she tried to find more information online about Sport Complaints but found the information available on the website lacking.

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“I went to the website that Hockey Canada directs me to and there are no names on that website, there are no biographies, there is no contact detail, there’s no location information. I have no idea who is on staff there. I have no idea who can access my information,” she said.

“I don’t know if these people are truly independent, because by all accounts, they seem like an extended division of Hockey Canada, because there is no confirmation of who these people are.”

In an Oct. 27, 2022 news release, Hockey Canada said Sport Complaints was led by two lawyers, Brian Ward and Erin Durant, and staffed by “a number of experienced, diverse professionals reflecting both gender and racial diversity.”

To get comment for this story, Global News submitted questions to Sports Complaints through the complaint intake email — at the time the only contact information on the website.

In response, Sport Complains said: “The [Sport Complaints] team are all trained lawyers and paralegals with experience in safe sport and sport litigation. The two lead ITP members are Brian Ward, W&W Dispute Resolution Services and Jahmiah Ferdinand-Hodkin, Sport Dispute Management Professional Corporation. Over the course of the year, the volume of cases has fluctuated and therefore the PSC team has ranged between 4 to 20 contractors actively working to administer the maltreatment complaints under the applicable policies.”
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In its response, Sport Complaints said it retains further third-party investigators, mediators and adjudicators at appropriate steps of the complaint process.

After Global News submitted questions to Sport Complaints, an “about Sport Complaints” section was added to its website that carries a similar message to its emailed response.

The Sport Complaints landing page on Aug. 17 (right), the day Global News submitted questions. The ‘About Sport Complaints’ tab is seen on Sep. 7 (right). sportcomplaints.ca

Still, the lack of clarity about the people and process is part of why advocates and the woman are urging changes to make the system more transparent, independent and humane.

“This is not a sport issue. This is a human rights issue happening in sport. And we need human rights experts, child protection experts, legal experts who are not influenced by relationships and business opportunities in the sports system,” she said.

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