In hockey, Canada’s national winter sport, justice is typically handed out swiftly and decisively. A referee sees an infraction, stops play, and immediately directs the offending player to the penalty box or to the dressing room if the infraction is serious enough.
It’s not a perfect system, but dealing with infractions quickly does bring a measure of accountability to the game.
In that same spirit, it was gratifying to see the federal government take relatively swift action to penalize Hockey Canada for an apparent organizational effort to cover up allegations of sexual assault by some of Canada’s most promising young players.
The issue arose last month when TSN reported that an out-of-court settlement had been reached with a woman who alleged she had been sexually assaulted in a London, Ont., hotel room by eight top-tier junior hockey players, some members of the gold medal-winning 2018 World Junior Championship squad.
The lawsuit sought $3.55 million from Hockey Canada and the Canadian Hockey League; terms of the settlement are not known.
Of immediate concern, however, is why a taxpayer-funded, public institution such as Hockey Canada was seeking an out-of-court settlement for allegations that — while not proven in court — suggest criminal behaviour?
Complicating matters is the fact the woman involved did not want to be identified and is, according to her lawyer, "satisfied with the outcome." The lawyer would not confirm if a non-disclosure agreement was part of the settlement, and said the woman does not want to pursue the matter further.
That would make any effort by Hockey Canada or law enforcement to investigate this matter further or publicly identify the players a threat to the woman’s request to remain anonymous.
Still, the entire matter smacks of a culture that puts greater emphasis on protecting players — Hockey Canada’s prime commodity — than on holding them to account for serious and potentially criminal misdeeds. The organization did conduct an external investigation four years ago, but did not compel the players allegedly involved to participate. The existence of the lawsuit and the external review were not known until the settlement was filed with a London court.
Concerns were exacerbated when federal Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge said she had been told Hockey Canada has received one or two allegations of sexual assault involving players each year for at least the past five or six years. That no one was aware of the frequency of these allegations suggests Hockey Canada is rife with what Ms. St-Onge described as a "culture of silence."
Ottawa has taken swift action to address this mess. Current and former Hockey Canada executives were called to testify before a House of Commons committee. Ms. St-Onge has also ordered a financial audit of the organization to determine if federal funds was used to cover the settlement. The organization’s federal government funding has been frozen until it can show it has improved its internal policies and procedures for allegations of this kind.
It may be impossible to ensure every hockey player involved in this kind of allegation is fully investigated and, if warranted, criminally prosecuted; the right for victims to remain anonymous must be taken into account in every instance. However, out-of-court settlements must be accompanied by other penalties and sanctions from Hockey Canada. It is unacceptable to allow promising young hockey players to evade responsibility and escape punishment when they are subject to these allegations.
Ottawa has done a good job at stopping play at Hockey Canada and assessing an initial penalty. However, the federal government must follow through and make sure all those involved in this sorry incident receive just punishment.