The sexual-assault allegations that have recently emerged against former Canadian Hockey League players underscore the need for Ottawa to do a better job of holding sports organizations accountable, according to a group of leading researchers.
In an open letter issued Tuesday to federal Sports Minister Pascale St-Onge and a group of MPs, 28 academics from 21 institutions in Canada, Britain and the U.S. say incidents in hockey are not caused by a few “bad apples,” but are rather a “symptom of a deeply rooted culture” that exists in hockey and other sports.
“These problems are not rare – they are endemic, particularly in elite junior hockey and in other elite male-dominated sports,” says the letter, which was signed by researchers across a number of disciplines, including sports medicine, management and policy. “Politicians, the media, and the public must begin holding sport leaders accountable and monitoring them closely to ensure they take meaningful action.”
The letter was addressed to members of the federal Canadian Heritage committee, which is holding high-profile, public hearings into Hockey Canada’s handling of sexual-assault allegations. Already, the federal government has frozen funding to the national governing body for hockey, and several major corporate sponsors have suspended their support.
The hearings, which resume Tuesday, were convened in June after it was revealed that Hockey Canada settled a civil lawsuit on behalf of eight CHL players accused of sexually assaulting a woman after a Hockey Canada fundraising gala in London, Ont., in 2018. The players are not named in the lawsuit and have not been publicly identified, but they include members of the 2018 Canadian world junior team.
While Hockey Canada initially came under a microscope for its handling of the 2018 allegations, a series of revelations have emerged in recent weeks that will inevitably feature prominently at this week’s hearings.
London police have reopened their probe into the 2018 allegations, which initially concluded without charges. Police in Halifax have opened an investigation into an alleged sexual assault in 2003, involving members of that year’s Canadian world junior team. In addition, a Globe investigation exposed that Hockey Canada for years used a special multimillion-dollar fund, fed by player registration fees, to settle claims of alleged sexual assault.
On Monday – one day before committee members were slated to resume their probe – Hockey Canada released a plan that it said “marks an important step forward” in reforming the game. The 19-page action plan outlines a series of measures intended to prevent future abuses.
They include an independent review of Hockey Canada’s governance, the publication of an annual scorecard measuring progress in key areas, the creation of an independent and confidential complaint mechanism for those who believe they have been mistreated or abused, increased emphasis on education and training, and what the organization calls “enhanced character screening” for athletes on track to participate in its high-performance stream.
The organization’s plan was immediately dismissed by a member of the Heritage committee. Peter Julian, an NDP MP, said it “isn’t going to cut it,” and added that, in order to restore some confidence, Hockey Canada must be transparent and accountable in this week’s hearings.
In their open letter, the researchers said Ottawa should look to statements published over the years by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), including a 2016 document that called for “urgent” action to address “serious and widespread” sexual violence in sport. Among the signatories is McMaster University’s Margo Mountjoy, a sports physician and former elite athlete who has served as a member of the IOC working group on the prevention of harassment and abuse in sport.
“Changing hockey culture must start with the men at the top,” the letter says. “The men who lead hockey organizations, commentate about hockey, or benefit commercially from selling hockey-related products do not reflect a diverse and inclusive modern Canada.”
The researchers say that when allegations of sexual assault and abuse in Canadian sport emerge, there are “recurring cycles of crisis” that prompt “reactionary policy responses” that bring little in the way of observable change.
They point to recommendations from the IOC and the broader research community to address sexual violence in sport, including mandatory reporting of incidents and regulatory compliance measures to ensure accountability.
Hockey Canada said earlier this month it is committed to becoming a signatory to the recently created federal Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner, whose mandate is to confront serious complaints of abuse and maltreatment in sport.
Ms. St-Onge, who took on her role as minister of sport last year, is among those who will testify Tuesday before the parliamentary committee. She has criticized Hockey Canada and promised to follow its next moves very closely. During the first round of hearings, she said 45 complaints across a number of national sports organizations had been reported to Sport Canada since 2018, when reporting allegations of abuse and maltreatment became mandatory.
Ms. St-Onge was unable to provide MPs at the time with details about those complaints, but her deputy minister said the department would provide further information to the committee.
“Preventing these problems will require strong and long-term leadership from the Canadian government,” the letter says. “This has been lacking in the past. We hope this will now change.”
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