Hockey Canada says it will stop using reserve fund to settle sexual assault claims

Minister of Sport and Minister responsible for CED Pascale St-Onge said during an unrelated press conference in Montreal on Thursday that while she believed Hockey Canada was taking "good steps in the right direction" by reopening its investigation into sexual assault allegations, there needs to be concrete action to improve the "culture of silence" including more training about consent for players and members within the association.

Hockey Canada says it will no longer use a fund maintained by membership fees collected across the country to settle sexual assault claims.

The so-called “National Equity Fund” came to light this week as the federation continues to deal with the fallout from an alleged sexual assault at an event four years in London, Ont., involving eight unnamed players and the subsequent out-of-court settlement.

News of the secretive fund drew the ire of Canadians, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Details of the fund, which has not been listed as part of the organization’s annual reports, are 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.

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

Hockey Canada said in a statement Wednesday that, effective immediately, the fund “will be exclusively dedicated towards safety, wellness and equity initiatives, as well as insurance across our organization — activities which comprised 98 per cent of its resources between 2014 and 2021.”

Meanwhile, authorities in London have ordered an internal review of their investigation into the alleged sexual assault. Police Chief Steve Williams said in a statement his department is looking to determine if any “additional investigative avenues may exist.”

He added the original investigation, which concluded without charges in February 2019, was “lengthy and detailed.”

Hockey Canada has seen its federal funding cut off and corporate sponsors pause financial support in the wake of the alleged assault and settlement that was first reported by TSN in May.

“Hockey Canada recognizes we have significant work to do to rebuild trust with Canadians,” Wednesday’s statement read. “We know we need to hold ourselves accountable. That is why we are beginning a full governance review of our organization that will be overseen by an independent third party.

“This will include the National Equity Fund.”

Hockey Canada CEO Scott Smith and predecessor Tom Renney will be back in Ottawa next week as MPs continue to press the under-fire federation for answers about the London incident and out-of-court settlement that has rocked the sport.

Smith, Renney, McCurdie and Canadian Hockey League president Dan MacKenzie are scheduled to testify in front of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage next Wednesday on Parliament Hill.

The same goes for the heads of the country’s three major junior circuits — Quebec Major Junior Hockey League commissioner Gilles Courteau, Ontario Hockey League commissioner David Branch, and Western Hockey League commissioner Ron Robison.

The temperature on the sport’s national body turned up further this week when The Canadian Press was first to report it maintains the “National Equity Fund” to pay for uninsured liabilities, including sexual abuse claims.

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Hockey Canada confirmed Tuesday the fund to covers 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.”

“I think right now it’s hard for anyone in Canada to have faith or trust in anyone at Hockey Canada,” Trudeau told reporters Tuesday.

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

Barry Lorenzetti, president and CEO of insurance provider BFL Canada, and Hockey Canada Foundation chair Dave Andrews are also scheduled to testify before committee on Wednesday.

Danielle Robitaille of Henein Hutchison LLP — the law firm that conducted an incomplete third-party investigation for Hockey Canada in response to the alleged incident — is expected to appear Tuesday along with Minister of Sport Pascal St-Onge and officials from Sport Canada and the Department of Canadian Heritage.

Smith, Renney, McCurdie, MacKenzie, Courteau, Branch, Robison and Andrews will appear in front of committee under subpoena.

Smith, who’s also Hockey Canada’s president, took over for the retiring Renney as CEO on July 1.

Renney, Smith and Andrews testified before the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage last month.

Parliamentarians were troubled by what they learned, including that Hockey Canada didn’t make participation in its investigation mandatory, didn’t know the identity of the players in question, and paid the settlement without having the full picture of what happened.

Smith testified “12 or 13” of the 19 players were interviewed before Hockey Canada’s original probe concluded in September 2020. London police closed their investigation in February 2019 without laying charges.

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The woman was seeking more than $3.5 million in damages from Hockey Canada, the CHL and the players. Details of the settlement are not public, but Smith testified last month the organization liquidated investments to pay for the settlement.

Unhappy with what they heard, MPs called for this next round of meetings, a redacted copy of the non-disclosure agreement related to the settlement, and a long list of Hockey Canada communications.

The federation released an open letter to Canadians last week that included numerous promises, including a pledge to reopen its third-party investigation _ participation is now mandatory — and that full governance review.

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

Some members of the 2018 world junior team have stated publicly they either weren’t involved in the alleged incident or didn’t attend the gala, including current NHLers Cale Makar, Robert Thomas, Jordan Kyrou, Victor Mete, Conor Timmins, Taylor Raddysh and Jonah Gadjovich.

“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 in its letter last week.

“For that we unreservedly apologize.”

© 2022 The Canadian Press

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