Hockey Canada has hired former Supreme Court Justice Thomas Cromwell to lead a review into the organization’s governance structure amid growing calls for its leadership to step down over its handling of alleged sexual assault cases.
The sport’s national governing body is facing intense public and political scrutiny over its culture problems and how it settled a $3.5 million lawsuit for a 2018 alleged group sexual assault case involving Canadian Hockey League players including some members of Canada’s World Junior team at that time.
“We have heard Canadians loud and clear and are committed to making the changes necessary to allow us to be the organization Canadians expect,” wrote Michael Brind’Amour, chair of the Hockey Canada board of directors in a statement.
“This comprehensive governance review is a critical step to restoring trust with Canadians and ensuring we have the right people and systems in place to deliver on our action plan to improve Canada’s game.”
The announcement comes as minor hockey associations are starting to push back and cancel funding. Major sponsors have dropped out and a new police investigation has been opened into a 2003 alleged group sexual assault in Halifax involving World Junior players.
Conservative MP John Nater, who sits on the parliamentary committee probing Hockey Canada’s handling of sexual assault claims, said he’s continuing to call “for immediate change of leadership at Hockey Canada” despite the new review.
“Those responsible for Hockey Canada over the past 20 years are not the right people to oversee this much needed change,” wrote Nater in a statement to CBC News. “The current leadership at Hockey Canada has shown they are more concerned with protecting themselves than they are with finding the truth or combating the culture of silence.”
Hockey Canada’s president and COO Scott Smith has resisted stepping down despite MPs from several political parties calling on him to do so. Smith vowed at a parliamentary committee last week to lead a culture change with the organization.
The new third-party review’s mandate is to make recommendations to ensure Hockey Canada following the “best practices of a national sports organization of similar size, scope and influence in Canada,” wrote Brind’Armour.
The review will also look into the controversial “National Equity Fund” that’s been used to pay for 9 out of 21 settlements for sexual abuse allegations since 1989. The fund was used to settle up to the maximum of the $3.5 million lawsuit over the alleged 2018 sexual assault.
Hockey parents and associations were outraged to learn that fund is made up in part of their registration fees. At least one local associations in Quebec cut its funding over concerns and encouraged others to do the same.
Cromwell was a Supreme Court justice from 2008 to 2016 and was appointed as a Companion of the Order of Canada after leaving office. He is currently working at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP (BLG) as a dispute mediator involving the public sector.
Cromwell was also tapped by now independent MP Jody Wilson-Raybould during the SNC-Lavalin affair around 2019 to advise her on the limits of solicitor-client privilege after she resigned from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet.
Supporting Cromwell in the review will be Victoria Prince and Nadia Effendi of BLG, Hockey Canada said.
Minister of Sport, Pascale St-Onge, said she’s looking forward to reading justice Cromwell’s findings.
“Hockey Canada hired a very credible person to do the review of their organization,” she said.
WATCH / Hockey Canada has paid 21 settlements for sexual misconduct
Liberal MP Anthony Housefather says the review is a positive step, if it’s made public and the process is transparent. But he said the terms of reference released is missing a clear review of the board’s processes related to the settlement agreements for sexual assault claims.
“I also do not believe this should serve as an excuse to do nothing to deal with the executives who have been involved in mishandling these issues until November,” said Housefather.
NDP MP Peter Julian calls Hockey Canada’s latest announcement “a tactic to delay” work needed to be done “to fix fundamental problems.”
He’s also asking for the parliamentary committee probing Hockey Canada to resume this month and call on the three sport ministers who have been in office since 2018 about their oversight of Hockey Canada.
Hockey Canada told Sport Canada about the allegation in 2018, but the department never informed the federal minister of sport’s office. The minister of sport at the time, Kristy Duncan, had put in place a directive ordering that the minister’s office is notified.
“I believe that our next step should also include having before us the three sports minister at the time, Minister Duncan, who gave the original directive that all information regarding sexual violence or sexual abuse should go directly to her office, and then Minister Steven Guilbeault and Minister St-Onge.”
St-Onge has already testified once at the committee and reiterated today that she’s ordered all allegations to be reported to her office and is working with Sport Canada to make sure they have “all the tools and expertise.”
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