Warning: This story contains sexually graphic details that may be disturbing to readers
As calls mount for the leaders of Canada’s national hockey organization to resign over sexual misconduct scandals, federal Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge is calling for “change” within the organization.
St-Onge told CBC News’ The House that she was horrified by details of a video a man said he viewed of an alleged 2003 group sexual assault involving that year’s World Junior hockey players.
Asked whether news of the video and of other misconduct scandals that have come to light recently should lead to resignations among Hockey Canada’s leaders, St-Onge said the organization has lost “the trust of Canadians.”
“I’m as concerned as all Canadians,” she said. “Also my parliamentary colleagues that have asked for the board to resign and the directors to resign.
“I feel the same, that there needs to be change within the organization.
“I’m using all the tools that I have … to create and impose that change at Hockey Canada. But at some point they need to also look at themselves … Are they the right people to to implement the change that Canadians are requesting? They need to take responsibility for what’s happening within their own organization and so far it hasn’t been enough.”
The comment is one of the strongest St-Onge has made about Hockey Canada’s leadership. She previously said more diversity was needed in top jobs at the hockey organization and on its board of directors.
‘Extremely disturbing and horrifying’
A man who said he viewed the video told CBC News he recently shared with police the names of two players he recognized from the footage who went on to careers in the NHL.
The man said the video showed the two players walking into a hotel room where about six other players were standing naked and masturbating around a heavily intoxicated woman while one person penetrated her.
“This is extremely disturbing and horrifying,” St-Onge said. “I think it’s quite clear that there are problems within this sport.”
St-Onge said it’s a “huge problem for society” that players that are alleged to have committed assaults “have not been held accountable.”
Police are investigating three alleged group sexual assaults by former junior hockey players. The allegations span the period from 2003 to 2018.
All are alleged to involve a group of players degrading a lone, intoxicated woman. In two of the cases, police reopened investigations over the past month in response to public outrage over the lack of charges.
None of the allegations have been proven in court.
‘Culture of silence’
Asked if these three cases might be only the tip of the iceberg, St-Onge said it’s hard to know.
“It does raise extremely preoccupying questions about what happens during those events, during the celebration after the tournament,” St-Onge said. “And how these players are educated about sexual violence, consent and all those topics that’s we’re talking [about] now in society.”
St-Onge said Hockey Canada “needs to acknowledge the depth of the problem.”
To date, only one member of Hockey Canada’s leadership — board chair Michael Brind’Amour — has stepped down ahead of schedule.
Olympic champion Marnie McBean confirmed to CBC News a crisis management firm hired by Hockey Canada recently revoked an offer to bring her in to an oversight group because she made it clear she wanted members of the leadership removed.
St-Onge said she can’t ask Hockey Canada’s leaders to resign because all sport organizations funded by the government are independent. But she said the organization needs to look closely at itself and take responsibility for what’s happening.
Since becoming the sports minister more than eight months ago, she has been made aware of a large number of allegations against at least eight different sport organizations, her office said.
The allegations include sexual violence, maltreatment and psychological abuse, St-Onge said. In some cases, she added, coaches have been accused of crossing the line and pushing athletes too far to be their best.
In April, St-Onge announced Canada would open the first Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner to oversee a complaint intake process, conduct preliminary investigations and maintain a database of sanctions imposed.
That new office started accepting incident reports on June 20.
But Sport Integrity Commissioner Sarah-Eve Pelletier told CBC News her office can only investigate incidents involving the national sport organizations that have signed on.
Negotiations on getting more than 40 sports organizations to sign on to the commissioner’s office — over issues like insurance and legal responsibility — are underway, Pelletier said. So far, only four organizations have joined the effort: the Canada Games Council, Canada Sport for Life, Volleyball Canada and Weightlifting Canada.
That means the office has to turn away complaints involving other organizations.
“Right now, if people are not able to have their complaints addressed by us, it may not be a good use of time if they file a complaint,” Pelletier told CBC News. “Because it will unfortunately not be able to proceed any further at this stage.”
Hotline under fire
Some cases might be directed to Sport Canada, which has a sport helpline it launched in 2018.
That hotline recently came under fire over its handling of hockey complaints. CBC News reported this month that, until recent months, callers to that helpline who wanted to report bad experiences in hockey were referred either to a law firm or an insurance claims adjuster — both chosen by Hockey Canada.
The law firm — Henein Hutchinson — is a well-known criminal defence firm known for high-profile court cases, some involving the defence of individuals accused of sexual assault. St-Onge said that she’s heard from athletes who say that third-party organizations paid for directly by sports organizations don’t feel “independent enough.”
Henein’s firm was retained by Hockey Canada to investigate allegations of a group sexual assault by members of the 2018 World Junior team in London, Ont.
Hockey Canada vowed to sign on to the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner last month as part of its plan to address what it called “toxic behaviour” both on and off the ice. It has yet to do so.
St-Onge said sports organizations like Hockey Canada will be required to submit to the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner by April 2023. When asked why the office was opened before all sports organizations had signed on, St-Onge said the sport commissioner is independent and responsible for its operation.
“What we did as a government is provide in the last budget $16 million for them to have all the resources that they need to put in place this new system,” she said.
“We are creating something new in Canada that’s never existed before.”
Pelletier said her office is in its early days and is “working hard and fast” to start preventing and responding to reports of maltreatment and discrimination.
“There is simply no place for any form of abuse in sport,” said Pelletier. “We are going to work hard to effect our mandate and to be part of the change that the sport system needs at the moment.”
A House of Commons committee holding public hearings on Hockey Canada’s handling of sexual assault allegations is expected to resume next month when Parliament returns.