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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rips Hockey Canada leadership over sex assault fund

Trudeau says the fund is "totally unacceptable."

By Joshua Clipperton

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau understands the public’s frustration and disgust with Hockey Canada.

He shares many of those same feelings.

Trudeau ripped the federation’s leadership Tuesday in the wake of revelations that it maintains a fund meant to deal with sexual abuse claims. 

“I think right now it’s hard for anyone in Canada to have faith or trust in anyone at Hockey Canada,” he told reporters at an event on Bowen Island, B.C.

“What we’re learning … is absolutely unacceptable.”

Hockey Canada has been under intense scrutiny since May when news broke that the organization quietly settled a lawsuit filed by a woman who alleges she was assaulted by eight unnamed players, including members of the country’s 2018 world junior team, following a gala in London, Ont., four years. 

The organization has since had federal funding cut off because of its handling of the case and settlement, while a number of corporations paused sponsorship dollars. 

Trudeau, who added the situation is “completely outrageous” when answering in French, said government support would remain frozen “pending significant reforms, transparency and accountability.” 

The Canadian Press was first to report Monday that Hockey Canada has maintained the fund — which comes from membership fees collected across the country — to pay for uninsured liabilities, including sexual abuse claims.

The detail was included in a July 2021 affidavit sworn by Glen McCurdie, who was then Hockey Canada’s vice-president of insurance and risk management, as part of a lawsuit launched by an injured player in Ontario. 

“Hockey Canada maintains a reserve in a segregated account to pay for any such uninsured liabilities as they arise,” said McCurdie’s affidavit, which goes on to state “uninsured liabilities include potential claims for historical sexual abuse.” 

Hockey Canada confirmed in a statement Tuesday it has a so-called “National Equity Fund” to cover a “broad range of expenses related to safety, wellness and equity initiatives.” 

“The fund is also used to pay for the organization’s insurance premiums and to cover any claims not otherwise covered by insurance policies, including those related to physical injury, harassment, and sexual misconduct,” the statement read. 

Hockey Canada added the fund was “established in a manner consistent with reserve funds maintained by other large national organizations.”

“When I think about the culture that is apparently permeating the highest orders of that organization, I can understand why so many parents, why so many Canadians who take such pride in our national winter sport, are absolutely disgusted by what’s going on,” Trudeau said Tuesday. “As a government, we will continue to be unequivocal in our condemnation of what we’re learning.

“And mostly in our demands that things change significantly.” 

Hockey Canada CEO Scott Smith testified before the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage in Ottawa last month that no government money was used in the settlement of the alleged assault, both of which were first reported by TSN in May.

The woman had been seeking more than $3.5 million in damages from Hockey Canada, the Canadian Hockey League and the unidentified players. 

None of the allegations have been proven in court. 

St. Louis Blues forward Robert Thomas, a member of the 2018 world junior team, released a statement on social media Tuesday saying he had no involvement in the alleged incident. 

Four other members of the team — Cale Makar, Victor Mete, Conor Timmins and Jonah Gadjovich — have also publicly stated they weren’t involved. 

McCurdie, who retired in December, was not present for committee proceedings last month due to the death of his father, but has been subpoenaed by the committee for a subsequent round of meetings slated to begin next Tuesday. 

Hockey Canada released a carefully worded open letter last week with a number of promises, including a pledge to reopen an incomplete third-party investigation into the alleged assault and a full governance review. 

“We know we have not done enough to address the actions of some members of the 2018 national junior team or to end the culture of toxic behaviour within our game,” Hockey Canada wrote last week. 

“For that we unreservedly apologize.” 

Smith, who took over from Tom Renney as CEO on July 1, testified on Parliament Hill last month that Hockey Canada reported a total of three sexual assault complaints in recent years, but wouldn’t discuss the other two in front of the committee. 

He added there have been up to two complaints of sexual misconduct each of the last five or six years. 

Hockey Canada said in its open letter that participation by players in the third-party investigation into the London incident will be mandatory — unlike before — and that anyone who declines will be banned from all activities and programs. 

Smith testified last month “12 or 13” of the 19 players were interviewed before the original and incomplete investigation concluded in September 2020.

The woman’s lawyer said in an email last week his client, who did not take part in the initial probe or speak with police, “will be participating in the Hockey Canada investigation.” 

The NHL is also conducting an investigation because some of the players are in the league, but isn’t making participation mandatory. 

“I’m very, very concerned by the culture, which apparently has reached the highest levels of the organization,” Trudeau said Tuesday of Hockey Canada in French. 

“It’s essential — really crucial — that there be a new approach and that there be oversight, responsibility, accountability.” 

With files from Amy Smart on Bowen Island, B.C.

Banner image: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a news conference on Bowen Island, B.C., on Tuesday, July 19, 2022. The prime minister says it’s “hard for anyone” to have faith in Hockey Canada’s leadership as revelations emerge about how the federation maintains a fund meant to partially handle sexual abuse claims.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 19, 2022.