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Sheldon Kennedy appreciates Hockey Canada's language, wants to see action

TORONTO — Former NHL player and victims rights advocate Sheldon Kennedy says he appreciates the language and tone of an open letter from Hockey Canada in the aftermath of the federation's bungled handling of an alleged sexual assault four years ago.
Hockey Canada says it is reopening a third-party investigation into an alleged sexual assault involving members of the country’s 2018 world junior teamHockey Canada logo is shown at an event in Toronto on Wednesday Nov. 1, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

TORONTO — Former NHL player and victims rights advocate Sheldon Kennedy says he appreciates the language and tone of an open letter from Hockey Canada in the aftermath of the federation's bungled handling of an alleged sexual assault four years ago.

Much like the rest of the country — citizens, fans, the federal government and corporate sponsors alike — he wants to see what comes next.

The sport's under-fire national body, its previously shimmering brand tattered like never before, offered an apology and a series of announcements in an open letter to Canadians published Thursday.

Among the promises was Hockey Canada's intention to revive a dormant third-party investigation into an alleged sexual assault involving members of the country's 2018 world junior team.

The organization said participation by players in question will be mandatory — unlike before — and that anyone who declines will be banned from all activities and programs.

"Good first step," Kennedy, a voice for survivors following his own experience being abused by then-coach Graham James in junior hockey, said of the letter's overall message in a phone interview with The Canadian Press. "The followup … they should be able to speak with their actions.

"I'm hopeful that they will."

Hockey Canada previously said it "strongly encouraged" players take part in the investigation into the incident that occurred at a 2018 function in London, Ont., but it wasn't required.

CEO Scott Smith, promoted to Hockey Canada's top job July 1, testified on Parliament Hill before the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage last month "12 or 13" of the 19 players were interviewed before the original and incomplete investigation concluded in September 2020.

"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 Thursday. "For that we unreservedly apologize."

Smith told parliamentarians Hockey Canada reported three sexual assault complaints in recent years, including the alleged London incident, but wouldn't discuss the other two in front of the committee. He added there have been up to two complaints of sexual misconduct each of the last five or six years.

NDP MP and committee member Peter Julian said the letter doesn't indicate participation will be mandatory for all investigations moving forward.

"The apology is long overdue," Julian said in a phone interview. "The blowback from the Canadian public, from elected officials, from sponsors has been very clear."

Hockey Canada quietly settled a lawsuit in May after the woman claimed she was assaulted by eight players, including members of the country's 2018 gold-medal winning junior team.

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

The woman's lawyer said in an email Thursday his client, who did not take part in the initial probe or speak with police, "will be participating in the Hockey Canada investigation and will not be commenting to media at this time."

Smith, Hockey Canada's then-president, and outgoing CEO Tom Renney were grilled by MPs in Ottawa in that committee meeting last month.

The federal government subsequently paused public funding, while a number of companies suspended sponsorships.

Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge told reporters in Montreal that Thursday's letter included "steps in the right direction."

"However, I'm going to wait for actions before we do anything else regarding Hockey Canada," she said.

St-Onge previously requested the organization submit all recommendations made by investigators to Sport Canada along with an implementation plan "to improve the culture in Hockey Canada and change the culture of silence."

"There's a lot of distrust with the way that (2018) case was initially handled," said Kennedy, whose Respect Group works with youth and junior programs across the country. "They need to build back the trust. And that's by walking the walk, that's by doing the work. It's to be expected that there's a lot of negativity and a lot of skepticism, but I respect the language.

"It wasn't there to start. That language wasn't there. The acknowledgment of wrongdoing wasn't there, and I think it's there. And I think that's the first critical step, you can't move forward until you know where you came from."

Hockey Canada will now require players, coaches, staff and volunteers associated with its high-performance program to participate in mandatory sexual violence and consent training.

It will also conduct a third-party governance review and is committing to become a full signatory to the Office of the Integrity Commissioner, a new government agency with the power to independently investigate abuse complaints and levy sanctions.

Hockey Canada added it will create an "independent and confidential complaint mechanism" to provide victims and survivors tools and support to come forward.

"It's the attitude we were expecting from Hockey Canada, but four years too late," Bloc Québécois MP Sebastien Lemire said in a statement.

St-Onge said last month federal money would only be restored once officials produced the third-party report and became a signatory to the Office of the Integrity Commissioner.

Hockey Canada did not commit to releasing either the incomplete or full report to the government Thursday.

Hockey Canada said once its investigation is completed, it will be referred to "an independent adjudicative panel of current and former judges who will determine the appropriate consequences, which may include a lifetime ban from Hockey Canada activity, on and off the ice."

The identity of those tabbed for the panel wasn't revealed.

The woman who made the assault allegation was seeking $3.55 million in damages from Hockey Canada, the Canadian Hockey League and the unnamed players.

Hockey Canada has said it learned of the incident the day after it was alleged to have occurred, started to investigate and notified London police, which closed the file in February 2019.

Hockey Canada has added previously the woman did not want to identify the players.

But Kennedy said it's crucial their identities are known — at the very least by investigators — not just so there are repercussions, but also for training and education.

"If we don't, we have no way to potentially change behaviour," he said. "We know when it's unchecked, and people get away with these types of events and incidents, they are repeated a lot of the times."

Scotiabank, the first company to pause support for Hockey Canada, said in a statement Thursday's letter was "a positive step in a longer journey" for the federation.

The Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage is set to meet July 26 and 27 to hear from more witnesses. It has requested a redacted copy of the non-disclosure agreement related to the settlement along with a long list of Hockey Canada communications.

Julian said he hopes testimony is more transparent, accountable and focused on a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to sexual violence.

"The difference between the Hockey Canada executives and where Canadians are at was such a wide gulf," Julian said of the June meeting. "It was unbelievable.

"Hockey Canada is now starting to understand how far short they fell."

The NHL is also conducting an investigation because some of the players are in the league, but isn't making participation mandatory. The NHL Players' Association declined to comment via email when asked what direction the union is giving members.

St-Onge said she only learned of the 2018 incident and settlement days before TSN's initial story. Hockey Canada said it informed Sport Canada of the situation in June 2018.

"Changes to policies and procedures can occur with the stroke of a pen," Hockey Canada wrote Thursday. "Those changes are meaningless, however, without an equal commitment to addressing the toxic behaviour that exists in many corners.

"We know this change will not occur overnight, but we are committed to learning, and working with our partners to do better."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 14, 2022.


Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter.

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press