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Nater says change is needed at Hockey Canada

Perth-Wellington MP said he is 'remarkably disappointed' that hockey registration fees paid by Canadian parents were unknowingly used to pay out settlements stemming from sexual assault and sexual abuse claims
MP John Nater
Perth-Wellington MP John Nater.

One of hockey's biggest advocates for victims of abuse has called for wholesale changes at Hockey Canada, including the resignation of president/CEO Scott Smith.

Perth-Wellington MP John Nater, one of the first speakers at the House of Commons parliamentary hearings on Wednesday, couldn't agree more.

"Last night there was a statement from Sheldon Kennedy, who for 20 plus years has been advocating for victims. He said, the same people with a new plan expecting different results is the definition of insanity. I call for the resignation of CEO Scott Smith, his leadership team and the board of directors to resign and step down from their positions immediately. Enough is enough already."

“Frankly Mr. Smith, we agree," Nater said at the hearing.

Nater, vice-chair of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, didn't pull any punches in dialogue with Smith and senior members of Hockey Canada.

The hearings are being held after a number of negative media reports have cast a long, dark shadow over Hockey Canada.

A story surfaced in the spring about an alleged group sexual assault by members of the Canadian junior men's hockey team. The incident allegedly took place at a hotel after a Hockey Canada gala event in London, ON.

The heritage committee is hosting the hearings to determine how Hockey Canada dealt with the allegations and a lawsuit, which led to a multi-million dollar payout. Hockey Canada paid out $7.6 million in nine settlements related to sexual assault and sexual abuse claims since 1989, with $6.8 million of that related to serial abuser Graham James, the committee heard on Wednesday.

Another 12 insured claims have cost Hockey Canada $1.3 million and the organization's chief financial officer, Brian Cairo, said $1 million of that is related to four complaints about the same alleged perpetrator.

Insurance companies were not willing to insure the organization for payouts related to the James case after it became public, which is why the organization needed to set aside money in what they called the National Equity Fund, for uninsured payments, Cairo told the House of Commons heritage committee.

"This money was used to support the victims, not the perpetrator."

Those payouts have come partially from registration fees paid by the thousands of Canadians who play hockey every year, Nater noted.

In an interview with StratfordToday after the hearing, Nater said he was disappointed that average Canadians were unknowingly paying registration fees that went towards these types of settlements.

"I was disappointed to know more than $7 million in hard-working Canadian parents registration fees was used to pay out settlements. Remarkably disappointed by that. People work hard to save money for the opportunity for their children to participate in organized sports. Funds being used to pay these settlements is frustrating, angering and troubling on so many levels."

Several witnesses including Cairo, Hockey Canada president Scott Smith, and Glen McCurdie, the organization's former vice-president of insurance and risk management, were before the committee Wednesday. At the request of Nater, witnesses were sworn in and testified under oath.

McCurdie told the committee that when he learned of the allegations on June 19, 2018, he was golfing with Hockey Canada's insurance brokers and told them informally about the situation hours before he made a report to London police.

He said that he made a formal insurance report the next day, and that he had several phone calls with other Hockey Canada officials on June 19 about the allegations.

Police investigated and did not lay charges, but the woman at the centre of the allegations sued Hockey Canada, the Canadian Hockey League and eight unnamed players for just over $3.5 million this spring.

Hockey Canada settled the case for "the maximum amount," Smith said. The sum is not included in the $7.6 million figure as it has yet to be fully tabulated.

Smith told the committee the organization chose to use the National Equity Fund because an insurance claim could take months or years, and that Hockey Canada could still put the claim through insurance after the fact. 

Cairo said Hockey Canada did not offer to pay the complainant from its equity fund before the lawsuit, as it didn't know the details of the allegations and it wanted to respect her privacy.

Smith was pressed by Liberal MP Anthony Housefather about why the case was settled so quickly and whether Hockey Canada properly informed the eight players who were also defendants. He said it was "highly unusual" to settle within weeks, but Smith said that was done in the best interests of the complainant.

During the hearing, Nater pressed Smith on how the decision was reached to payout the money from the alleged sexual assault in London. Smith said the decision was made 'in-camera' but there was no recording and no minutes taken.

Minutes from the board of directors meetings are required to be presented to the committee, Nater said to Smith.

“All of the briefings in regards to this file were held in-camera," Smith replied.

"So what you are telling me is no in-camera discussions have been recorded and the minutes provided to this committee despite this committee ordering the production of those papers," Nater asked.

“In-camera meetings have no recordings and no minutes," Smith said.

Smith said that it is best to say that Hockey Canada made the decision.

"Management reviewed it with our board and then we presented the settlement offer and it was agreed to.”

Nater told StratfordToday that the committee needs more answers on the speed in which the settlement was reached.

"It is one area where we are lacking clear answers from Hockey Canada. We were promised copies of minutes from the Board of Directors meetings at Hockey Canada, we have not received anything from past mid-March of this year. We are lacking that clarity. We don’t have all the answers of how those conversations went. Frankly, it is still not clear who authorized the settlements and made final decisions."

“It speaks to the governance issues: no written records of decisions made in-camera. When you have an organization of this size, a multi-million dollar organization, and there are no written decisions on record of their highest level of governance, the board of directors, I think that is a troubling scenario and that needs to be dealt with," Nater said.

Hockey Canada has reopened its independent investigation into the case. The law firm handling it says it has interviewed the complainant and plans to speak with nine players who were at the event and were not interviewed in the initial investigation in 2018.

The Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage has the power to review and report on policies, programs and expenditure plans within their portfolio. Sport is included in the policies and programs under its per view. Sport Canada is a branch of the Department of Canadian Heritage. Sport Canada develops federal sport policy and provides funding programs for sports in the country. The Government of Canada, through Sport Canada, funds Canadian sports organizations, including Hockey Canada.

Government funding, though, has been stalled and many of Hockey Canada's major sponsors have paused funding.

London Police Service have re-opened their investigation.

On June 20, London police service chief Steve Williams said in a media release that due to public interest, he directed an internal review of an initial 8-month investigation that ended in February 2019 without charges.

Two days later, Williams told media in another press release that London police would re-open the criminal investigation.

“A team of investigators were assigned and have conducted a preliminary review,” he said. “Through this review, they have determined there are further investigative opportunities available to us, and as such, the criminal investigation has been re-opened to allow those opportunities to be explored."

Kennedy, the advocate for sexual abuse survivors and one of James’s victims called on Hockey Canada’s leadership to resign this week. Several other MPs asked Smith if he would step down.

"For the good of hockey, for the good of countless volunteers across this country, for the good work countless, blameless people are doing for the sport of hockey, I strongly believe there needs to be new leadership within hockey Canada, will you do that, will you step down for new leadership to take over," Nater asked Smith.

Smith said a governance review is underway and if it determines he is not the best person for the job, he will accept that, but said he wants an opportunity to make change.

"I believe that I'm the right person to lead Hockey Canada to a new place."

Nater told StratfordToday that Hockey Canada needs a strong, clear commitment to organizational change and cultural change.

"Unfortunately, I don’t have confidence in the current leadership within Hockey Canada to deliver that cultural change and organizational change. Until we can clearly see the change and see the improvements within governance, within reporting mechanisms, I will continue to lack confidence in the organization’s leadership."

"Those in leadership positions need to reflect and come to a decision that is in the best interest of hockey going forward. Obviously, if they choose not to there are other scenarios, including from the government’s perspective, making it a condition that new leadership is in place in order to resume funding. Also, there is a board of directors. They have to sit down and have that conversation in what they want to see to rebuild the confidence that has been lost in Hockey Canada as an organization."

 - With files from The Canadian Press

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Paul Cluff

About the Author: Paul Cluff

Paul has worked at media outlets in St. Thomas, Goderich, Woodstock and Stratford, where he has lived since 2002. The Editor of enjoys coaching Special Olympics basketball and soccer in his spare time, and playing golf.
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