Published July 26, 2022

Sport Canada knew of Team Canada sexual assault allegations in 2018

Organization says it did not make sport minister's office aware of the allegations

By Sarah Ritchie in Ottawa

Michel Ruest, a senior director of Sport Canada, says the federal organization was made aware of an alleged sexual assault involving members of Team Canada’s world junior hockey team in late June 2018, but did not follow up with Hockey Canada over the next four years.

Under questioning at a House of Commons committee Tuesday, Ruest also told MPs that Sport Canada, a branch of Canadian Heritage, did not make then-sport minister Kirsty Duncan's office aware of the allegations. 

Current Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge has said she did not know of the allegations until this year. 

She and Sport Canada officials were called to testify as the Commons heritage committee investigates what happened between June 2018, when Hockey Canada learned of the allegations, and May of this year, when news broke that it settled a lawsuit with the complainant. 

MPs grilled Ruest and deputy heritage minister Isabelle Mondou about why Hockey Canada's funding was not cut before June of this year, and why there was no follow-up on the case. 

Mondou said Sport Canada, which has funding agreements with national sport organizations, is not mandated to investigate and is not a regulatory body. 

That wasn't good enough for Conservative MP Kevin Waugh, who told St-Onge he puts some of the blame on the federal agency. "Canadians are looking for leadership from Sport Canada." 

St-Onge said serious allegations will be reported to her office from now on.

"But the responsibility that Sport Canada has is to make sure that the sport organization takes the appropriate steps to deal with those situations," she told reporters. 

"In the case of Hockey Canada in 2018, Hockey Canada told Sport Canada that they had reported the event to the local police and that was the right thing to do."

Police did not lay charges and an independent investigation into the case was closed without conclusion.

The woman at the centre of the complaint alleges she was sexually assaulted in an incident involving eight hockey players, including some members of the 2018 world junior team, after a Hockey Canada gala in London, Ont.

Hockey Canada contacted a law firm when it learned of the incident. 

Danielle Robitaille, a partner at the firm, appeared before the Commons committee Tuesday. She said she was contacted by Glen McCurdie, Hockey Canada’s former vice-president of insurance and risk management, and that her advice to him was to inform the London Police Service. 

She was asked to conduct an independent investigation, and interviewed 10 of the 19 players who were present at the event.

Robitaille said the remaining nine players declined to be interviewed because of the ongoing police investigation, and she determined that she should not interview them until she had the complainant’s version of events.

Robitaille said the initial investigation was closed because the complainant did not provide a statement. The complainant subsequently filed a lawsuit this spring.

Robitaille said the woman has now given her "detailed version of events," enabling investigators to interview the other players.

“I am in contact with counsel for the players and I expect to be scheduling interviews imminently,” she told the Commons committee.

"I am well equipped to continue this investigation."

Hockey Canada has said player participation is mandatory.

“I hope that I will receive voluntary compliance with my investigation,” Robitaille said, but added that Hockey Canada has given her an extra tool because anyone who does not take part will be banned from its activities and programs, and those bans will be made public. 

London police have reopened their investigation, and the NHL and NHL Players' Association are also investigating.

The complainant's lawsuit sought just over $3.5 million in damages from Hockey Canada, the Canadian Hockey League and eight unnamed players. Hockey Canada settled the case quickly for an undisclosed amount. 

Details of the settlement, including the identities of the complainant and the men involved, have not been made public. 

Robitaille would not say whether the eight players who are alleged to have been involved in the sexual assault were among those who have not yet been interviewed. 

She said she chose not to interview them before speaking with the complainant because, “As a matter of due process I could not interview players without giving them fair notice of what was alleged against them.” 

A number of men who were part of that team have publicly stated that they were not involved in the alleged assault and that they took part in the investigations. 

Robitaille said seven Team Canada coaches and staff members were also interviewed.  

Hockey Canada released a plan Monday to rid the sport of "toxic culture," including mandatory chaperones for underage athletes at its events to enforce curfews and ensure no alcohol is consumed. Hockey Canada also said it will no longer host "open bar" events.

St-Onge told the committee Hockey Canada's leadership "must ask themselves if they are the right people to affect culture change," and that her department will use Sport Canada's funding agreements to ensure national sport organizations are putting athlete health and safety first.

Scott Smith, Hockey Canada's president and chief operating officer, and recently retired CEO Tom Renney will be before the committee Wednesday, along with McCurdie and the president of the CHL.

Banner image: Lawyer Danielle Robitaille, partner to Henein Hutchison LLP, appears as a witness at the standing committee on Canadian Heritage in Ottawa on Tuesday, July 26, 2022., looking into Hockey Canada's involvement in addressing alleged sexual assaults committed in 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 26, 2022.

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