Years before a Winnipeg high school football coach was charged with offences relating to the sexual abuse and exploitation of students, parents at Vincent Massey Collegiate raised alarms with school and division officials that youths in his program were being bullied and could be in danger.

Years before a Winnipeg high school football coach was charged with offences relating to the sexual abuse and exploitation of students, parents at Vincent Massey Collegiate raised alarms with school and division officials that youths in his program were being bullied and could be in danger.

Who was there to listen to our boys?’

Parents of some former youth football players at Vincent Massey penned an open letter expressing their frustration after learning of a slew of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation charges against former coach Kelsey McKay. Below, some excerpts from that letter.

The recent allegations and charges against Vincent Massey Football coach Kelsey Mckay have left me as a parent reeling with emotions ranging from anger to guilt to utter confusion with more questions than answers. How can this continue to happen and, in this case, right under our noses, literally.

Each year students are taught about bullying, how to spot a bully and what to do when they encounter one. Students know that to stop a bully they must tell someone they trust. Who was there to listen to our boys when they complained? Who held the coach accountable, questioning his methods when he clearly crossed the line on the field, off the field and in the locker room?

Parents of some former youth football players at Vincent Massey penned an open letter expressing their frustration after learning of a slew of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation charges against former coach Kelsey McKay. Below, some excerpts from that letter. 

The recent allegations and charges against Vincent Massey Football coach Kelsey Mckay have left me as a parent reeling with emotions ranging from anger to guilt to utter confusion with more questions than answers. How can this continue to happen and, in this case, right under our noses, literally. 

Each year students are taught about bullying, how to spot a bully and what to do when they encounter one. Students know that to stop a bully they must tell someone they trust. Who was there to listen to our boys when they complained? Who held the coach accountable, questioning his methods when he clearly crossed the line on the field, off the field and in the locker room?

Where is the line between coaching and bullying? In this case, bullying, humiliating, and intimidating had become part of McKay’s coaching strategy. No line existed. That in itself should have raised red flags. What kind of culture is it that fosters the kind of behaviour that condones bullying on one hand, but then expects integrity on the other? With so many mixed messages, is it any wonder that it took so long for boys (now young men) to come forward?

Players who spoke up, and parents who advocated for their sons, were left hanging, at the mercy of the administration’s “discretionary decisions”. To “wait and see what happens” was the only option given to the players and their parents. The boys were just too happy to move on. Until they couldn’t, and the past came back to haunt them.

Coach McKay will get his day in court, his reputation is ruined, and what he loves the most (coaching football) is lost to him. But what of the system that allowed for his behaviour to continue unchecked for so long? Is a system with such huge gaps as to allow this to occur, yet again, not at least somewhat responsible, and accountable to those they are there to protect?

Despite what the division states was a "thorough investigation" into the parents’ complaints about abusive and boundary-crossing behaviour from Kelsey McKay, including police involvement, he continued to coach and teach phys-ed at Massey for nearly six years. He was placed on unpaid leave following his arrest in April.

The parents believe school officials could have done more to bring the coach to account sooner — and they are calling on the province to take action to confront the culture and systems in sport and education that allowed the kind of abuse their sons had witnessed to continue for many years, they say.

"This has haunted us for years, and we knew this day would come," one parent said.

Multiple sets of parents spoke to the Free Press on condition of anonymity, to protect their sons’ identities.

McKay has been charged with eight counts of sexual assault, seven counts of sexual exploitation, six counts of luring and one of sexual interference for incidents that date from 2004 to 2011 involving eight former youth football players — seven from his 19-year stint at Churchill High School and one from Vincent Massey.

Former football coach Kelsey McKay has been charged with eight counts of sexual assault, seven counts of sexual exploitation, six counts of luring and one of sexual interference for incidents that date from 2004 to 2011 involving eight former youth football players. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Former football coach Kelsey McKay has been charged with eight counts of sexual assault, seven counts of sexual exploitation, six counts of luring and one of sexual interference for incidents that date from 2004 to 2011 involving eight former youth football players. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Years before those former students stepped forward, some parents at Vincent Massey had their own concerns.

Between 2013 and 2017, a number of parents became alarmed after their sons reported being subjected to outbursts of what they describe as McKay’s "extreme rage." The coach, who moved to Vincent Massey in 2009, would often shout at students and berate players, telling them that they were worthless or useless.

"The kids were scared of him, which was his intent," one parent said.

McKay was erratic, the parents said, and prone to whiplash changes in behaviour. Sometimes, he would simply vanish from practices when players displeased him. He would "build students up," parents said, only to tear them down with cruel words and unpredictable moods.

"That alone should have stopped him from ever getting any further, because that is bullying," one parent said. "We teach our kids not to bully, we teach our kids to report it and that it’s unacceptable in the school system. So why, under the guise of a football program, is a teacher and coach allowed to behave that way?"

Former Vincent Massey coach Kelsey McKay (Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Former Vincent Massey coach Kelsey McKay (Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Most concerning of all to the parents was that the coach often pushed past what they considered acceptable boundaries between a teacher and his students. He would text multiple students "constantly," including on weekends, even after they’d graduated from Massey. On several occasions, he texted students to make inappropriate after-hours social visits.

McKay also, in at least one incident, disclosed personal information to students in a way parents found highly unusual and inappropriate.

It was that type of behaviour that led them to contact school and division officials with their concerns.

They went first to then-Vincent Massey principal Tony Carvey, who has since retired. Carvey met with the students and took the complaint to Pembina Trails assistant superintendent Elaine Egan, who convened a meeting with McKay and a union representative, and alerted superintendent Ted Fransen.

The parents expected McKay would be immediately removed from the coaching sidelines until a formal review could be completed, but that did not occur. Instead, Carvey and other staff increased monitoring of some practices for a period of time, which parents believed was insufficient.

While staff were present at games, Egan told parents it would not be possible to have staff monitor all practices.

“This has haunted us for years, and we knew this day would come.” – Parent

"Based on our experience, our bigger concern is how he behaves when not being monitored," one parent wrote to Carvey, in an email seen by the Free Press. "I continue to experience great anxiety over Mr. McKay’s ability to control himself and being clear on appropriate boundaries as an adult, teacher and coach."

Parents were told McKay had been instructed not to text or meet students outside of practices or games, and required him not to be alone with students — though the second person present did not have to be an adult. And they were told the division had initiated a confidential process to address the complaints and offer better guidance for McKay.

Soon after those protocols were put in place, McKay texted at least one student. He also "cornered" a student at practice, one parent said, and began asking about the parents’ complaints. The parent informed school officials about the incidents, but said they were not made aware of any additional followup.

Further contact with Pembina Trails officials, the parents say, left them unsatisfied with the steps that were being taken.

"It fell so far below what we thought was a minimum standard," one parent said. "It was a shock to us. Nothing was happening."

“I continue to experience great anxiety over Mr. McKay’s ability to control himself and being clear on appropriate boundaries as an adult, teacher and coach.” – Parent

In an interview with the Free Press last week, Pembina Trails superintendent Fransen said that in response to that set of complaints, the division had undertaken a "thorough investigation" that involved meetings with parents, students, McKay, the Winnipeg Police Service and Canadian Centre for Child Protection.

"We took this very, very seriously," Fransen said.

At the time, parents were made aware of the investigation and expressed satisfaction with the results, he said.

The parents, however, dispute that version of events: two of them said it was news to them police had ever been involved, and that they’d never been given a full list of steps taken to investigate the complaints.

They’d also been told by their sons that "nothing changed" after the initial period of increased monitoring.

McKay was erratic and prone to whiplash changes in behaviour, according to some parents. (Boris Minkevich / Winnipeg Free Press files)

McKay was erratic and prone to whiplash changes in behaviour, according to some parents. (Boris Minkevich / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Fransen could not speak to the specific actions taken in McKay’s case, citing personnel privacy regulations. As to whether it is typical that a staff member facing such complaints would not be asked to step aside during an investigation, or be subject to ongoing monitoring, Fransen said it depends on the specifics of each situation.

"No two cases are the same," he said. "The information that was given to us by the parents and the students led to the outcome that we had… I can say to you generally that when teachers require monitoring, they are monitored."

The current charges McKay is facing have prompted a review of past incidents and red flags, Fransen indicated.

"Whenever there is a situation of any type that has broken our trust… we always do a reflection," he said. "We review the situation, and we take steps to improve our process and to learn from the situation and, if necessary, make adjustments to policies, and so forth.

"The safety of our students is always paramount, and we took this case seriously… we’re always troubled when cases like this arise, and they are few and far between, but they’re serious and they’re handled in a serious way."

In the wake of McKay’s arrest, the parents want to see the province take more concrete action to protect youths. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

In the wake of McKay’s arrest, the parents want to see the province take more concrete action to protect youths. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

In the wake of McKay’s arrest, the parents want to see the province take more concrete action to protect youths.

Last month, the parents wrote to Education Minister Wayne Ewasko and Sport, Culture and Heritage Minister Andrew Smith, calling for a review of the steps taken by school and division officials after they made their complaints. They said they would also like to see a provincial plan to ensure enhanced checks and balances in both school and sporting environments.

Finally, they called for a clear plan to address power imbalances in sporting programs, a review of the culture in sports that may allow abusive or predatory behaviour to persist and a plan to ensure sport and education leaders have consistent annual training on how to deal with complaints.

"We believe that even before McKay came to Massey there were enough warning signals in how he treated all the boys that he should never have been given another job," one parent said. "So we are looking for answers as to why nothing was done, and hoping that we can help incentivize some kind of accountability of administrators to students and parents."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.