OTTAWA — The first day of hearings held by the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage was theoretically supposed to be less newsworthy than Wednesday’s appearances by Hockey Canada and Canadian Hockey League officials.
But appearances on Tuesday by Danielle Robitaille, partner of Hockey Canada’s third-party investigating law firm Henein Hutchison, minister of sport Pascale St-Onge, Sport Canada senior director Michel Ruest and deputy minister Isabelle Mondou provided a few big moments of their own.
The hearings were prompted by recent revelations of an alleged sexual assault in 2018 by eight CHL players, some of whom were members of the Canadian World Junior team, after a Hockey Canada event in London, Ont.
Biggest takeaways from Day 1:
HOCKEY CANADA’S LEADERSHIP IS ON THE CLOCK
In a strong and impassioned opening statement, St-Onge made it clear change could be coming to Hockey Canada’s leadership.
“Hockey Canada should not underestimate the work ahead,” she said in French. “The organization’s board and management leaders have a moral responsibility to reflect on the role they should play in what comes next. They must ask themselves if they are the right people to affect culture change. Is this group of leaders adequately equipped to carry out a system-wide change? Is there enough diversity in decision-making roles to drive change? Are there enough women in significant leadership positions within Hockey Canada to provide needed perspective on sexual violence and its impact?
“Hockey Canada should be asked all of these questions. The nature of their answers will determine the credibility of the organization and the level of seriousness that they propose to take in their next steps.
“Hockey Canada must also take this situation as an opportunity to make a fundamental shift on the underlying violence in the sport, including issues such as racism, concussions or fighting on the ice. Canadians expect Hockey Canada to behave differently and it requires leadership capable of doing so.
“Hockey Canada, the whole country is watching.”
Bloc Quebecois MP and associate committee member Sébastien Lemire told Sportsnet he has doubts about the current Hockey Canada leadership.
“Of course we want to see change,” he said after the hearing. “If what they do in the past they will do again, I’m very, very worried about (it). They’re taking action because they have a lot of pressure — pressure by politicians, of course, by the (sports) minister, by the media. But the question is: If we are not there today, do they change their culture as they say? The answer is absolutely no.”
NDP MP committee member Peter Julian said placing Hockey Canada into a trusteeship or guardianship is not out of the question.
“That’s something that needs to be considered if what we see (Wednesday) is similar to what we saw last month, which was Hockey Canada stonewalling on important questions that are asked to it,” Julian told Sportsnet. “So, I think the pressure is on the Hockey Canada executives (Wednesday) to actually be transparent to show that they take the issue of sexual violence and sexual abuse seriously and convince the Canadian public that they are going to be appropriate trustees of our national winter sport.
“I certainly, as a member of the committee, am awaiting their testimony. I expect transparency, I think Canadians expect transparency and taking responsibility. We’ll see whether or not that actually comes to pass. And then when you couple that with systematically Hockey Canada not putting into place measures that they have committed to in the past, like even gathering racism statistics, that was something they committed to over two years ago, they failed to do it. They keep putting it off, and these are all elements that undermine confidence in Hockey Canada.”
What this means: Scott Smith took over on July 1 as leader of Hockey Canada from the now-retired CEO Tom Renney, adding president to his title of chief operating officer. With the statements about Hockey Canada’s leadership getting stronger and louder, and with other important voices such as members of the women’s national team and Sheldon Kennedy joining the chorus, you have to expect new leadership — or even a new structure entirely (new name, new accountability) — is coming sooner rather than later for Hockey Canada.
SPORT CANADA’S LEADERSHIP MIGHT BE, TOO
The biggest takeaway from Tuesday’s testimony for Julian revolved around Sport Canada’s leadership.
Under questioning by Conservative MP and committee vice-chair John Nater, Ruest testified that Sport Canada had been notified about the 2018 allegations surrounding Hockey Canada and did not hold back funding or take further action. Nater cited four funding requests that had been approved after Ruest was personally notified of the allegations in June 2018.
Ruest said this was because Sport Canada was waiting for completion of the criminal and third-party investigations.
“No one’s asking Sport Canada themselves to investigate,” Nater said during the hearing. “You just mentioned they took note. They took note and wrote down a piece of paper and nothing more happened with that, it was kept in a filing cabinet somewhere and the (previous) minister of sport, who two weeks earlier had made a big deal about safe sport, wasn’t even informed. They took note and then did nothing. That’s not good for anyone in the sporting community, it’s not good for individuals participating, it’s not good for victims, and that’s what happened.”
That also didn’t fly with Julian.
“The failure of Sport Canada really to enforce the rules that they supposedly had put into place 20 years ago, their refusal to even take seriously allegations of serious criminal activity that are encompassed by the allegations of sexual violence” was the biggest takeaway, Julian told Sportsnet. “I mean, it’s unbelievable to me that you would basically take it and file it rather than take it seriously.
“So, I think it’s fair to say Hockey Canada has has let down Canadians, I’d say Sport Canada has let down Canadians too, and let down those athletes that are victims and victims from the general public who have been victimized in part because we’ve seen no concrete action taken.”
What this means: Although the heat isn’t as hot on Ruest as it is on Hockey Canada’s leadership, you have to think some accountability or, at the very least, a harder line on following up with individual sport associations in Canada is coming.
THE INVESTIGATION BY HOCKEY CANADA’S LAW FIRM IS MAKING TRACTION
Robitaille, a partner with Toronto-based law firm Henein Hutchison LLC, was the first on Tuesday to appear before the committee. She said her firm was contacted to conduct an investigation on the morning after the alleged incident took place in London on June 19, 2018. She said the law firm’s advice was to contact London police; Hockey Canada executives testified on June 20, 2022, that they contacted London police around “6 p.m. to 7 p.m.” that day. Robitaille added her firm was hired on June 21, 2018, to conduct an investigation.
She said that between June 30 and July 11, 2018, she travelled across Canada and the United States to conduct interviews with 10 of the 19 players who were at the gala event in London on June 18, 2018. On July 7, 2018, Henein Hutchison learned that London police were conducting their own investigation. On July 13, 2018, seven players said they would not participate in interviews until the London police investigation had been completed. On that same date, July 13, 2018, Robitaille testified, the complainant said she would not participate in the law firm’s investigation until the police investigation had been completed.
After interviewing coaches and other staff members, Henein Hutchison submitted its “interim report” on Sept. 14, 2018. Over the next 18 months, the law firm continued to contact the woman through her attorney to be interviewed, but without her account and the criminal investigation closed by London police, it closed its own investigation.
When pressed by the committee to say if she knew who the eight suspected players are in the alleged 2018 incident, Robitaille chose her words carefully.
“This is an area that I have to be very careful in answering,” she told the committee. “As I indicated, the goal of our mandate is the search for the truth. I do not want to provide an answer in the course of these proceedings that could potentially taint the evidence from other witnesses that I have yet to hear from, nor do I want to provide an answer that taints the evidence that will be provided to the London Police Service, who’s reopened their investigation, or the NHL or NHLPA ongoing investigation.
“And so I do have to decline answering that question, with the following caveat: My investigation is going well. As I indicated, I have the complainant statement now. And as I indicated in my opening statement, I am well-equipped to continue this investigation.”
What it means: Although she did not directly answer the question, Robitaille’s response that the investigation is “going well” would seem to indicate all the key parties are participating, which is ahead of where the firm was from 2018-20. If that’s the case, and in conjunction with the fact that Robitaille said London police have not asked her to stop her investigation, we are much closer to finding out what happened and who was involved in the alleged incident of June 19, 2018.
–with files from Sportsnet’s Iain MacIntyre