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Opinion: Fixing the problems at Hockey Canada will be difficult without leadership changes

Hockey Canada has fallen short of its mission to ‘Lead, Develop and Promote Positive Hockey Experiences’ in its handling of sexual violence perpetrated by and against Hockey Canada players.
Real harm can come from powerful institutions acting permissively or insubstantially in the face of abuse.

Two gruelling days of parliamentary hearings into Hockey Canada’s sexual assault scandals have revealed deep troubles with the organization’s governance, leadership and culture.

Most troubling was how Hockey Canada and Canadian Hockey League officials who appeared before the committee chose to respond to questioning from members of Parliament. Their recalcitrant attitudes suggest that change under the current leadership will be impossible.

The House of Commons committee on Canadian Heritage was looking into Hockey Canada’s handling of allegations of the group sexual assault of a woman by members of the 2018 men’s world junior team at a celebration event in London, Ont., held months after the tournament.

A number of sports experts from across the country sent an open letter to the parliamentary committee expressing their concerns that “sexual violence and misogyny are deeply rooted problems in men’s ice hockey.”

Unfortunately, at the end of two days of hearings, there are far more questions regarding Canadian hockey culture than answers.

History of sexual assault allegations

The hearings included, among a number of chilling disclosures, information that Hockey Canada has paid $7.6 million in sexual assault settlements since 1989 and that Sport Canada, the government agency that develops federal sport policy, was informed of the 2018 allegations and failed to act.

In the most dramatic moment on the last day of hearings, Hockey Canada president and chief executive officer Scott Smith staunchly refused to step down.

While the MPs were looking into the alleged 2018 assault, police and Hockey Canada announced last week they were re-opening an investigation into another alleged group sexual assault by members of the 2003 world junior team.

It’s overwhelmingly apparent the alleged actions perpetrated by members of the 2018 and 2003 world junior teams should not be presented as singular, unique and uncommon violations of policies. Rather, these actions, viewed in a context of sexual violence dating back decades, demonstrate a pattern of entrenched behaviour within hockey culture.

The players that make up Canada’s world junior squad come from teams in the Canadian Hockey League, which governs the top junior leagues across the country.

Institutionalized harm

Canadian Hockey League leaders who testified, including president Dan MacKenzie and the heads of the major junior leagues in Western Canada, Ontario and Québec, denied that a culture of hazing existed in their organizations — despite numerous high-profile hazing cases, including a statement of claim filed by Daniel Carcillo with the Ontario Superior Court in 2020 alleging abuse and hazing in a class-action lawsuit.

During the second day of the hearings, Hockey Canada chief financial officer Brian Cairo explained that $6.8 million of the $7.6 million in sexual assault settlements were related to the notorious case of Graham James, a former Western Hockey League coach and convicted sexual predator whose crimes stretch from 1984 to 1995.

Cairo may have been trying to give the impression that most of Hockey Canada’s settlement money went to an isolated incident decades in the past. But that’s yet another example of Hockey Canada’s attempt to minimize the perceived problems at the heart of Canadian hockey culture.

Cairo later testified that that Hockey Canada has paid out 12 additional insured sexual misconduct claims that totalled $1.2 million.

The James case clearly did not cause any substantial change to Hockey Canada’s operating model. The new scandals involving world junior teams reveal once again that tragic events consistently occur within a system governed by an organization that is simultaneously unable to protect their own athletes from abuse by coaches and also has serious problems with the conduct of its athletes.

Leaders refuse to take accountability

Real harm can come from powerful institutions acting permissively or insubstantially in the face of abuse.

In 2016, the International Olympic Committee issued a “consensus statement” that should serve as a warning for Hockey Canada officials. It noted:

“Passive attitudes/non-intervention, denial or silence by people in positions of power in sport (particularly bystanders) and lack of formal accountability all create the impression for victims that such behaviours are legally and socially acceptable, and that those in sport are powerless to speak out against them; this bystander effect can compound the initial psychological trauma.”

Hockey Canada’s mission statement is: “Lead, Develop and Promote Positive Hockey Experiences.”

The parliamentary hearings revealed that Hockey Canada has fallen short of its stated function in the way its leaders have handled sexual violence perpetrated by and against Hockey Canada players.

As stewards of Canada’s game, they have flagrantly abused the responsibilities associated with this role. Consequently, it is long past time to examine who is granted the privilege of carrying out this important mission.

The Conversation

Taylor McKee receives funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada