A Hockey Canada executive has told a House of Commons committee under oath that the organization did not use any government money to settle a lawsuit with an alleged victim of sexual assault.
CBC News reported Monday that financial records show Hockey Canada received $14 million in federal government support in 2020 and 2021, including $3.4 million in emergency COVID-19 subsidies.
But in testimony before the House of Commons standing committee on Canadian Heritage on Monday, Hockey Canada CEO Tom Renney said none of that money was used to settle a $3.55 million lawsuit filed in April by a woman who alleges she was sexually assaulted by eight former Canadian Hockey League (CHL) players following a Hockey Canada Foundation event in London, Ont. in June 2018.
The allegations have not been proven in court.
“I can assure that no government funds were used in this settlement,” Renney said in his opening statement to the committee.
The terms of the settlement, and the identity of the parties to the lawsuit, are not known.
Earlier this month, Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge ordered a financial audit of the out-of-court settlement, saying the move was meant to ensure taxpayer money wasn’t used to settle the case.
Renney said the organization would cooperate fully with the audit.
Speaking before the committee, St-Onge said she first learned of the case and the settlement in a short phone call from Renney on May 24, two days before sports network TSN first reported details.
When questioned by the committee, Hockey Canada chief operating officer Scott Smith said the organization liquidated some of its investments to pay the settlement. Government funding is kept in a separate account, Smith testified.
Renney said the organization moved to settle the matter quickly because it felt it had a moral obligation to do so.
He said that although Hockey Canada’s independent investigation into the matter was inconclusive, the alleged incident was “unacceptable and incompatible with Hockey Canada’s values and expectations, and it clearly caused harm.”
He added that the organization is hoping to address behavioural issues through changes to its code of conduct and improved education programs.
Renney is set to retire from his position as CEO at the end of this month. He testified that his decision to step aside is not related to the alleged events or the settlement.
Investigations failed to identify the players
Renney said Hockey Canada learned of the reported incident a day after it allegedly occurred, and that organization staff informed London, Ont., police.
Shortly after, he said, Hockey Canada hired a third-party investigator, Henein Hutchison LLP.
But on Monday, Smith said under questioning that neither investigation is active — and that the investigations failed to identify the eight players.
“We were not able to confirm the identity of the accused,” Smith said.
He said Hockey Canada communicated with the unidentified players through a representative and that the independent investigation commissioned by Hockey Canada ended following the settlement. He also said London Police told Hockey Canada its investigation ended in February of 2019, but said he didn’t know the specifics of why police dropped the case.
The executives testified that while Hockey Canada encouraged all players at the event to participate in the third party investigation, there was little uptake.
Renney and Smith gave conflicting and unclear testimony about how many players did participate.
Renney said that if he had to guess, he’d say “four to six” players participated. Smith contended that the number was higher but did not give a figure.
Liberal MP Anthony Housefather said he feels there was a lack of effort on Hockey Canada’s part to identify the players.
“The fact that they haven’t been identified sort of shocks me,” Housefather told the committee.
The plaintiff said in her statement of claim that the eight players — currently identified as John Does one through eight — were members of Canada’s national junior team.
The National Hockey League (NHL) is investigating to determine whether any of the eight are playing in the league. Renney said Hockey Canada is fully cooperating with the NHL’s investigation.
Conservative MP Kevin Waugh expressed a concern that the players could end up coaching hockey at some point in the future.
He also questioned why the sequence of events wasn’t made public for four years.
“Who made that decision to keep this quiet?” Waugh asked.
Smith replied that Hockey Canada was waiting for the conclusion of the two investigations.
“We did the work that we needed to do and we were prepared to respond once the investigation at the criminal level, or once the investigation by our third party, was complete, but unfortunately neither one of those could be completed,” Smith told the committee.
Smith said neither investigation was able to determine what happened on the day of the alleged assault, which limited what disciplinary actions Hockey Canada could take.
“On the advice of our third party investigator, we were not able to impose sanctions. They advised us that that would lack due process for [the players],” Smith told the committee.
The executives said they were listening to the alleged victim when it comes to further actions, and would re-engage their third party investigator if necessary.
“We are certainly paying close attention to the young woman and her wishes at this point in time,” Renney said.
But St-Onge, who earlier this month announced a number of new measures to hold sport organizations across the country accountable for cases of maltreatment and abuse, questioned why Hockey Canada didn’t do more.
“With the facts reported in the media, one has to wonder why this organization did not choose to send a message of zero tolerance for sexual misconduct,” she said before the committee.
“Zero tolerance for maltreatment and abuse in sport is the only option.”
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