The world junior hockey championship is usually a feel-good holiday-season tradition for Canadian sports fans.
But when it’s held next month in Edmonton on account of a pandemic-related postponement, the tournament will be played under a grim cloud. Hockey Canada’s once-glittering brand has never been so tarnished. Corporate sponsors have distanced themselves en masse, at least temporarily. Federal funding has been frozen. The organization’s abysmal response to sexual-assault allegations against members of the 2018 world junior team, which included an out-of-court settlement for an undisclosed sum with the alleged victim, has cast the sport’s national governing body in a light that is beyond unflattering.
So now that they have been caught attempting to sweep a distasteful case under the carpet, dragged in front of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage last month in Ottawa to acknowledge the less-than-rigorous nature of the initial investigation into the matter, we’ve arrived at the desperate request for a do-over.
On Thursday, Hockey Canada released an open letter to Canadians in which it vowed to do better on a lot of fronts.
The headline item was a vow to reopen the investigation into the 2018 sexual-assault allegations, wherein a victim who has chosen not to be identified says she was taken to a hotel room and repeatedly sexually assaulted by eight junior hockey players, some of whom were members of the 2018 national team. The alleged victim has indicated through her lawyer that she will participate in the probe. Hockey Canada has said it will require all players to co-operate with the investigation, and that those who don’t will risk being banned from playing for the national team.
Beyond that, there was a laundry list of other commitments: handing over the results of the investigation to an independent panel of current and former judges to determine the appropriate consequences; sexual violence and consent training for all high-performance players; a full governance review; creating an independent and confidential complaint mechanism; and becoming a full signatory to the recently created Office of Sport Integrity Commissioner.
They’re all potentially noble endeavours. But you’ll excuse close observers of high-performance sport if they’re not ready to praise Hockey Canada’s checklist as an instrument of meaningful change. Toxic cultures don’t transform themselves because someone sent out a mass email. The reopening of the investigation, as necessary as it is, comes with the promise that there will be scapegoats and an outcome that can be spun as justice. But the most important question is one that can’t yet be answered. Given hockey’s reputation for building an largely impenetrable cone of silence around its secrets, what are the chances there will be genuine transparency?
As Pascale St-Onge, Canada’s minister of sport, was saying this week, Hockey Canada needs to take real action to “change the culture of silence.”
“It’s not good enough to be checking the boxes and creating the facade of change,” Jennifer Heil, the Canadian Olympic gold medallist, said in an interview this week. “It’s very easy for people to make promises and still operate under a veil of secrecy.”
Heil is perhaps best known as the freestyle skier who won Canada’s first medal at the Vancouver Olympics, a silver in moguls that topped up a career trophy case that included a gold at the 2006 Games and multiple world titles. But her career beyond the slopes has seen her pay close attention to the turbulent state of affairs in the corridors of elite sport. Before Heil spent most of the past year earning a one-year MBA at California’s Stanford University she spent about four years helping build British Columbia’s safe-sport infrastructure. In other words, she’s gone deeper into the weeds of these complicated problems than almost anyone. Which, given our moment in time, amounts to a useful chunk of experience.
Hockey Canada’s dark moment comes at a time when the country’s elite sport system finds itself “in crisis,” to use the phrase employed a few months ago by St-Onge. A chorus of athletes from a wide array of pursuits, from gymnastics to women’s soccer to bobsleigh and skeleton and swimming and rowing and rugby, have called for a cleansing of the toxicity in their respective sports. And there’s been progress on that front, specifically the federal agency built to act as an independent investigator and arbiter of claims of abuse developed by the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada and a University Code of Conduct to Prevent and Address Maltreatment in Sport.
But those agencies will only be as effective as the leaders in the sport community want them to be. It can’t just be about to-do lists. There has to be a will to get things done.
“We’re in a phase of culture change,” Heil said. “Hockey Canada, which has tremendous power in this country, has not chosen to lead on the safe-sport file. But the fact they are one of the early signatories (to the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner) is a great signal to the system that we’re building the future.”
Still, if an optimist is of the mind that this case, given the moment, could be the tipping point that changes hockey culture for the better — well, Heil would prefer to pump the brakes and see how things unfold.
“I think anyone who’s been around this space would know not to see any one case as a tipping point. Because change hasn’t happened that way,” Heil said.
For instance, “a lot of people thought that Sheldon Kennedy would be the tipping point,” Heil said, and yet it was only last year that Kyle Beach’s allegations of sexual assault at the hands of a Chicago Blackhawks coach offered a reminder that evil conducted under hockey’s veil of secrecy can do more damage than it might in an environment more supportive of victims.
Which is why Hockey Canada’s desperate request for a do-over needs to be met with extreme skepticism and careful scrutiny. Heil, for her part, called into question the Hockey Canada’s vow to employ an “independent third-party investigation” into the 2018 sexual-assault case.
“If Hockey Canada has any control over the scope of that investigation or even are the ones hiring the party, then that is not a true independent third-party investigation,” Heil said. “And that’s not a high enough bar.”
In other words, the initial investigation, conducted by a Toronto law firm hired by Hockey Canada, doesn’t meet any reasonable standard of independence. And Hockey Canada has not yet said if that same law firm will preside over the reopening of the probe. If the proceedings are to be taken seriously, clearly it can’t. If the proceedings are to be taken seriously, transparency is beyond a must.
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